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Review | Doris Salcedo used 15,000 needles to represent pain of gun violence


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When Colombian artist Doris Salcedo read Hannah Arendt’s 1963 book “On Revolution,” a passage about “civil war raging all over the earth” jumped out at her. It seemed like a strong assertion, especially to Salcedo, who lived in a country that had experienced deadly civil conflict for decades. But after learning about gun violence in the streets of Los Angeles, Salcedo noticed an alarming parallel — young people needlessly dying both in her home country, where there was declared war, and in the United States, where there was not.

The two crises didn’t seem so different. “You are killing each other. Brother killing brother,” Salcedo says on a Zoom call from Bogotá, Colombia. “It is civil war. It is fratricidal violence.”

Salcedo has long taken a journalistic approach to her art, using extensive conversations with survivors of trauma as the basis for profound, even haunting sculptures. So in 2014, when she heard that Chicago was having another violent summer, she went to meet with those closest to the tragedy: the mothers of children killed in shootings.

The result was “Disremembered,” a sculpture series with its 10th installment (“Disremembered X”) now on view in an exhibition of Salcedo’s work at Glenstone museum in Potomac, Md. After the massacre of 19 schoolchildren and two teachers in Uvalde, Tex., and amid a rise in gun violence, the artwork carries renewed, tragic relevance.

In a capacious gallery, four delicate gray shawls hang on otherwise empty walls. From afar, they appear hazy, barely real, like a fading memory of a loved one. But as you approach them, it becomes clear that the ghostly gray hue is not a fragile fabric or a fleeting vision, but tens of thousands of sewing needles. Up close, you can see that each one has been burned, bent or sharpened — specifically crafted for suffering, and conjuring, in Salcedo’s words, “a constant, infinite pain all over your being.”

These days, we know the imagery of tragedy too well: the piles of flowers and teddy bears, the candlelight vigils, the homemade crosses, the photographs plastered on makeshift memorials. But once the candles flicker out, the flowers wilt and the media goes chasing another story, the grief that endures in the Buffalos and Uvaldes and Parklands and Newtowns becomes harder to represent. How do you photograph absence? Or amplify silence?

Given the impassioned discourse around guns, “Disremembered” might, at first glance, seem anticlimactic, even small. But Salcedo’s sculptural objects, including others at Glenstone — hospital bed frames lined with animal fiber, antique furniture loaded with concrete, tables that have been destroyed and pieced back together — get at the mundanity of pain. They suggest the way it lingers in the corners of ordinary life, coats reality with a thick film of despair and pricks at the skin with every move, often invisible to those who don’t know it themselves. With subtle artworks, Salcedo captures grief and trauma’s further frontiers, beyond images and words.

We need a national memorial to gun violence. Now.

Other artists have taken on gun violence more directly. In a 1971 performance artwork, now in the Whitney and Museum of Modern Art’s collections as a video, Chris Burden had a friend shoot him at a gallery to re-sensitize the public to the brutality of guns. Conceptual artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres printed the names of 460 people who had died by gunfire during a single week in May 1989 on sheets of paper in “Untitled (Death by Gun).” In response to the 2018 Parkland, Fla., shooting, Jenny Holzer put the words “Duck and Cover” on a truck that drove around D.C. and parked in front of the U.S. Capitol.

Salcedo stands out in that she largely avoids direct references to guns, wounds, blood and victims’ names. In doing so, the work seems to bypass your thoughts and drill straight down to your bones.

pain says Mary Schneider Enriquez, a curator of modern and contemporary art at Harvard Art Museums who organized a 2016 Salcedo exhibition. “It actually calms you, quiets you, puts you in a state of silent reverence to those she’s remembering.”

For Schneider Enriquez, who has known Salcedo since the ’90s, the absence of literal violence gives her work its strength, especially when so many of us have become numb.

“When you see [violent images] too often, you compartmentalize it. It doesn’t stay and linger in a way that you think and deeply feel it beyond the initial shock,” she says. “I think that Doris forces us to see without seeing it.”

Fittingly, “Disremembered” (whose title comes from a phrase in the Toni Morrison novel “Beloved”) is not about memorializing the lost, but forgetting them.

When talking to the mothers in Chicago, Salcedo says, they all mentioned “an extra layer of pain.” For a few months, maybe a year, friends and family mourn with them, but then one day, they expect these mothers to let go — and ostracize those who do not. “Since they are unable to move on with this compulsory happiness that society imposes on all of us, they are excluded,” she says.

Referencing “Sanbenito” cloaks, which were used to shame criminals during the Spanish Inquisition, Salcedo’s shawls will never keep their wearers warm. It is clothing that creates a kind of nakedness, exposing vulnerability. Made out of 12,000 to 15,000 needles, each shawl takes about two years for a team of 10 to complete. This compression of time, Salcedo says, reflects how the past, present and future collapse for the bereaved, whose pain is no different one year or 10 years after their loss.

It is common for Salcedo’s work to have this meticulous, almost devotional quality. Conversations with sexual violence survivors led to her sculpture series “Tabula Rasa,” which consists of wooden tables that she broke apart and then carefully reconstructed, bit by bit. Covered with hairline cracks, the tables have a hushed resolve, as if willing themselves to hold it together.

After a since-failed peace agreement led Colombian civil warfighters to hand over their weapons, Salcedo melted 37 tons of firearms and asked women who had been raped by armed men to help her pound them into tiles for a gallery floor. “Fragments,” on display at a gallery in Bogotá, functions as an “anti-monument,” meant to reverse power: Those who had been harmed by these weapons could now literally stand on top of them.

Should Americans give up some of their guns, Salcedo says, she has “plenty of ideas” for what to do with them. But in the meantime, as policy debates drag on and calls for action go unanswered, Salcedo hopes that those who have lost children to gun violence can find refuge in “Disremembered.”

“I hope they know that I heard them. They had something to say, and I was there to listen,” the artist says. “I want them to know that their pain hurts me and that I’m carrying their pain. And I think that’s what they need from society.”

Doris Salcedo At Glenstone, 12100 Glen Rd., Potomac, Md. glenstone.org.

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