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Salcedo, Doris - VM - Meryl Doney

Doris Salcedo: Palimpsesto, 2013-2017

The Stones Cry Out

by Meryl Doney

In a quiet room in a South London gallery in Autumn 2018, the artist Doris Salcedo’s installation provided a powerful meditation on Europe’s migrant crisis and a memorial to the many who have died trying to flee from Africa or the Middle East over the past 20 years.

The installation is entitled Palimpsesto, 2013-2017 – palimpsest referring to a term for a document that has been overwritten many times – and reflects Salcedo’s continued focus on the experience of mourning and the connection between violence, anonymity and public space. Produced initially for the Palacio de Cristal, Centro de Arte Museo Reina Sofía in Madrid, the work consists of beautiful, rectangular stone slabs inscribed with the names of 300 individuals whose identity and stories Salcedo traced over a five-year period. The names are first spelled out in sand (for those who died prior to 2010) and then in delicate droplets of water (for those who died between 2011−16). At first it appears as though the letters might be etched into the surface of the stone and that these shallow channels are being filled by water welling up from beneath. But on closer inspection, it is clear that the water alone is holding the shape of the names, seeping up slowly through tiny holes. And then they disappear, and more names start to emerge.

Through its literal act of naming Palimpsest marks an important shift away from the artist’s earlier work in which the individual particulars of a victim’s experience were not made explicit. Moreover, the work refers not just to the migrants who died, but also to those who live and mourn them, reminding us how loss permanently defines life. In an essay published in an accompanying catalogue, Andreas Huyssen has written: “This is the palimpsest of memory itself, embodying the temporality of writing and erasing, the temporality of memory and forgetting, the temporality of intense and subsiding grief, even the temporality of the event of death itself ...”

The work may also carry a reminder of the powerful story of the murder of Abel recorded in the Hebrew scriptures. God calls to the guilty Cain, “Where is your brother Abel?” “I do not know,” he answered, “am I my brother’s keeper?” “What have you done?” replied the Lord. “The voice of your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground.” (Genesis 4:10). Here the very ground conveys the memory of injustice and tragedy enacted upon it. The presence of Salcedo’s quiet, fluctuating names on stone speak more powerfully than words of the trauma of displacement still being played out.

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Doris Salcedo (born 1958) is a Colombian-born visual artist and sculptor. Her work is influenced by her experiences of life in Colombia and is generally composed of commonplace items such as wooden furniture, clothing, concrete, grass, and rose petals. Salcedo’s work gives form to pain, trauma, and loss, while creating space for individual and collective mourning. These themes stem from her own personal history. Members of her own family were among the many people who have disappeared in politically troubled Colombia. Much of her work deals with the fact that, while the death of a loved one can be mourned, their disappearance leaves an unbearable emptiness. Salcedo currently lives and works in Bogotá, Colombia.

Meryl Doney is an independent fine art curator, specialising in presenting exhibitions in cathedrals, churches, festivals and other challenging spaces. She has curated over 40 exhibitions and performance pieces, including Moon Mirror by Rebecca Horne in St Paul’s Cathedral and Presence: Images of Christ for the Third Millennium, a series of thirteen different exhibitions involving 50 contemporary artists. Between 2006 and 2011 she was Director of Wallspace, a 'spiritual home for visual art' in All-Hallows-on-the-Wall church, in the City of London. In 2015 she was guest curator for CLEY 15, the North Norfolk open-submission exhibition at Cley-next-the-Sea. She was a member of the Organizing Committee of the Methodist Collection of Modern Art until 2018 and chairs the Art Advisory Group for St Paul’s Cathedral, London.

ArtWay Visual Meditation February 17, 2019