Salcedo, in Bogotá in September.
Salcedo, in Bogotá in September.
Photographer: Peter Ash Lee

Whenever the relatives of a victim of violence in Colombia see a sculpture that Doris Salcedo has crafted from her research into that person’s grisly death, they are invariably disappointed. Her sculptures are not memorials. She uses humble materials, like scuffed wood and roughsteel, rather than marble or bronze. She reveals few, if any, traces of the individual. “Families are not satisfied at all,” Salcedo says. “It’s too abstract for them. It is not retribution.”

Salcedo, 56, has dedicated her career to remembering and exposing what most people try to avoid. Melancholy rather than accusatory, her creationsevoke the painful history of her native Colombia, where, in thepast five decades, hundreds of thousands of people have been murdered and more than 5 million displaced through the brutality of right-wing paramilitary forces andleft-wing guerrillas. The political situation there, while uncertain, has in recent years markedly improved. “At the moment, there is a little hope that it will get better,” Salcedo concedes. But she still finds there are more people suffering than she can dignify with her work, especially as her gaze has broadened to take in the larger world.

For Shibboleth (2007), perhaps her best-known piece, Salcedo cut a 548-foot-long jagged gash in the concrete floor of the Turbine Hall at Tate Modern,suggesting the chasm of racism that faces Third World immigrants who arrive in a place like London. But at the outset of her career, in the mid-’80s, her resources were modest. She acquired pieces of used furniture or clothing and transformed them into dysfunctional, traumatized objects. She wrapped a crib in wire mesh, marking the absence of a baby boy. She stacked white shirts stiff with plaster and punctured them with steel stakes, calling to mind a massacre.

Salcedo, a woman with an unwavering gaze and an intensity that is augmented by a crown of wild, graying black hair, is deliberate and immersive in her process. She gathers reports of gruesome deaths and reads over the words until she has largely memorized them. She will visit the homes where the victims lived and walk the streets on which they were abducted. “I research not only as a journalist but almost as a detective, for a long period of time,” says the artist, who is the subject of a major retrospective that opens on February 21, 2015 (through May 24), at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago (MCA Chicago), and will travel to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York in June. “But when I start to work, I have toerase that, so it belongs to all our experience and not just the victim’s.”

“The times that we live in are suspect of convictions, and I don’t know that you will easily today find another artist with such absolute conviction,” observes Madeleine Grynsztejn, Pritzker director of the MCA Chicago, who deems Salcedo “the most important artist working in Latin America and one of the most important in the world.” Having come of age artisticallyat a time when Colombia was undergoing a very dark period, Salcedo has stayed true to that bleak outlook. Pablo León de la Barra, a curator specializing in Latin America at the Guggenheim, remarks that since he started visiting Colombia in 2001, the country has become “much more in peace and with a buoyant economy,” as reflected in a burgeoning scene of young artists, sleek galleries, and the artBO International Art Fair of Bogotá. None of that is apparent in Salcedo’s sculpture. Some critics argue that she defames the country internationally and exploits suffering. Salcedo dismisses them. “What is important is to be faithful to the testimony of the victims,” she says.

For her breakthrough work, Atrabiliarios (an untranslatable word that combines the black bile of anger with the black cloth of mourning), Salcedo collected the shoes of women who had disappeared. Often, those shoes were the only identifying features of bodies tossed into mass graves. At first, she wrapped a shoe in the bladder of a cow—an allusion, says her former studio assistant Jaime Cerón, to the notion that a kidnapped woman might urinate in terror, wetting her shoes. Over the arduous three-yearevolution of the piece, Salcedo radically changed its form. In the third year, she happened to see a victim’s relative she had interviewed two years earlier. “That woman was almost unrecognizable because of the pain,” Cerón says. “And Doris realized the skin had to refer to this secondary victim—so you partly imagine the shoe, like a kind of phantom.” In the final version of Atrabiliarios, which first appeared in 1992, and was reiterated several times, Salcedo displayed the shoes in niches, and used the bladder skin as a screen sutured to the wall over each recessed hollow. Like relics in churches or the bodies in South American cemetery crypts, the objects are intuited or remembered, not distinctly viewed.

The shift in focus from the suffering of the victim to the anguish of the survivor may have come less dramatically and completely than that one encounter suggests. Salcedo says that she was engaged with many families of desaparecidos, or “the disappeared,” and testing different kinds of animal skins. What is important is that instead of simply memorializing theviolence, Atrabiliarios tookthe act of remembering as its subject. “It is not in the pasttense,” she says. “The families of the victims are suffering in the present.” She is speaking from behind a large table, in the olderof two modern studio buildings, both multiple stories and graced withopen staircases and ample light, in a gentrifying Bogotá neighborhood.Salcedo works with about 10 full-time associates and enlists high-poweredexperts for certain projects. “I want it to be evident in my work that it is not possible that only one person could have done this,” she says. She also relies on others for visual acuity. In 1993, she was diagnosed with macular degeneration. Although you would not know from meeting her, she says she is legally blind.

Raised in a middle-class family in Bogotá, Salcedo and her sister, a physician, were schooled in the issues of the day as they listened to dinner-table debates between their conservative father, a small-businessman, and their liberal mother, who supplemented their income by taking in fancy sewing and embroidery. Salcedo attended college in Bogotá, but she says an important part of her education came from Beatriz González, an eminent Colombian artist who taught a study group at the Museo de Arte Moderno de Bogotá. In 1982, Salcedo moved to New York, where she earned a graduate degree at New York University and developed an affinity for the work of Robert Smithson, Eva Hesse, and, particularly, Joseph Beuys. Just a few months after she returned to Colombia, in 1985, a two-day guerrilla occupation of the Palace of Justice ended in a bloody military recapture and conflagration that left more than 100 people dead, including 11 supreme court justices. “Can you think of what it means for a country to have the supreme court go up in smoke?” Salcedo asks. In the years that followed, the violence intensified.

When Salcedo, with González, proposed an exhibition for the 10th anniversary of the siege, incorporating a charred, multivolume edition of a 19th-century Colombian constitution that had been found in the basement of the ruined building, she says that higher-ups in the cultural ministry nixed the idea. Instead, in 2002, on the 17th anniversary of the event, Salcedo presented Noviembre 6 y 7, which did not require a museum’s cooperation. From the roof of the Palace of Justice, her team slowly lowered chairs of different shapes and sizes, beginning at the precise time of the first killing. By the end, a sobering profusion of chairs dangled on the walls. “It was one of the most important works of art she has done here,” González says. Circulating among the people in the street that day, Salcedo was deeply gratified to see that citizens were remembering the tragic events. “It was important for me,” the artist says. “People were thinking and feeling. It was not as though the memory had completely disappeared.”

In two series that she completed after Atrabiliarios—“La Casa Viuda” and “Unland”—Salcedo incorporated bits of bone or fabric into pieces of furniture that she violated by sawing asunder and forcibly melding. A spectator needs to look closely to see, in one characteristic example, that a scarred wooden tabletop is covered with innumerable human hairs, which were sewn through tiny holes drilled into the top. That particular piece, part of the “Unland” group, is called The Orphan’s Tunic, a phrase she borrowed from the poet Paul Celan, a Romanian Jew who survived the Holocaust but lost his parents and eventually committed suicide. Celan wrote in a powerfully deformed German, which, Salcedo says, represents “the last step before language disintegrates.” His poetry achieves with language something similar to what she attempts with sculpture—an evocation of the unspeakable.

The destruction of Europe’s Jews was an epochal calamity to which all subsequent mass atrocities are compared. “There is no way you can think of Colombia without thinking of the Holocaust,” says Salcedo, whosehusband, the writer Azriel Bibliowicz, is part of Colombia’s Jewish community, which includes refugees from Nazi Germany and their descendants. Salcedo, who reads extensively as she develops her pieces, says that anyone studying modern mass murder must look back to the European thinkers like Celan or the German sociologist Theodor Adorno, who grappled to understand the unthinkable.

Her research goes far beyond history and literature. For A Flor de Piel, she wanted to create a shroud of rose petals, honoring a nurse in Colombia who was dismembered alive. She never visited the victim’s mother. “I couldn’t go talk to her,” Salcedo recalls. “What could I say?” Prompted by a rose petal that she found perfectly preserved in a book where it had lain for years but which withered and discolored in the open air, she sought a way to keep the hue and suppleness of the flowers. There were many failed trials before Carlos Granada, an architect she has worked with for many years, happened to be watching a television program on the Capuchin mummies of Palermo, Sicily, which described the compounds used to preserve wet brain tissue. That led the studio to one answer, but the questions continued to mount. Salcedo wanted the petals to have the hue of dried blood, so color was inserted through osmosis and preserved with a thin layer of wax. To keep the contents from draining when the petals were sewn together, the studio came up with a thread that would seal the hole with coagulant as the petal was pierced. Granada remarks, “With each piece, Doris says, we have to create a miracle.”

One of her grander new ideas addresses mothers of sons lost to gangviolence in the United States. Her dream is to create a plaza in which the names of victims will be recorded in water. When I visited her in Bogotá, she was experimenting with carving the letters indistinctly into a stonelike material. From below, water would well up like tears, to fill the letters and make them shimmeringly visible, before dissipating through evaporationor wind. Coming up with an impermeable surface that nonetheless allows rainwater to pass through, as well as engineering variably sized water spigots to fill letters with different volumes simultaneously, were only two of the technical hurdles. “It’s been challenging, to say the least, to find a city that wants to acknowledge gun violence,” Salcedo admits. She firmly believes that such avoidance exacerbates the problem. “If we as a society were able to mourn, there would be fewer victims. Violence is unstoppable because nobody cares.”

Portrait photography assistant: Philip Jackson.