At Glenstone, Doris Salcedo endures the lingering pain of gun violence

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When Colombian artist Doris Salcedo read Hannah Arendt’s 1963 book “On Revolution,” a passage about “the civil war raging all over the earth” jumped out at her. It seemed like a strong statement, especially for Salcedo, who lived in a country that had seen a deadly civil conflict for decades. But after learning of the gun violence on the streets of Los Angeles, Salcedo noticed an alarming parallel: young people dying unnecessarily both in his home country, where war was declared, and in the United States, where he there was none.

The two crises did not seem so different. “You are killing each other. Brother killing brother,” Salcedo said on a Zoom call from Bogotá, Colombia. “It’s civil war. It’s fratricidal violence.

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

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

In a vast gallery, four delicate gray shawls hang from otherwise empty walls. From a distance, they appear hazy, barely real, like a fading memory of a loved one. But as you get closer, it becomes clear that the ghostly gray hue is not flimsy fabric or a fleeting vision, but tens of thousands of sewing needles. Up close you can see that each has been burnt, bent or sharpened – specifically designed for suffering and evoking, in Salcedo’s words, “constant, endless pain throughout your being”.

Today, we know the imagery of tragedy all too well: the piles of flowers and teddy bears, the candlelight vigils, the handcrafted crosses, the photographs pasted on makeshift memorials. But once the candles go out, the flowers fade and the media chases another story, the grief that lingers in the Buffalos, Uvaldes, Parklands and Newtowns becomes harder to portray. How do you photograph absence? Or amplify the silence?

Given the passionate talk around guns, “Disremembered” might, at first glance, seem disappointing, even petty. But the sculptural objects of Salcedo, including other at Glenstone – hospital bed frames lined with animal fiber, antique furniture laden with concrete, tables that have been torn down and rebuilt – tackle the banality of pain. They suggest her way of lingering in the recesses of ordinary life, coating reality with a thick film of despair, and pricking the skin with every movement, often invisible to those unfamiliar with it themselves. With subtle artwork, Salcedo captures the boundaries of grief and trauma, beyond images and words.

We need a national gun violence memorial. Now.

Other artists have tackled gun violence more directly. In a performance work from 1971, now in the collections of the Whitney and the Museum of Modern Art as a video, Chris Burden had a friend shoot him in a gallery to raise awareness again about the brutality of weapons fire. Concept artist Felix Gonzalez-Torres printed the names of 460 people who died by gunshots in a single week in May 1989 on sheets of paper in “Untitled (Death by Gun)”. In response to the 2018 Parkland, Florida shooting, Jenny Holzer slapped the words “Duck and Cover” on a truck that drove around DC and parked in front of the United States. Capitol.

Salcedo is distinctive in that she largely avoids direct references to guns, wounds, blood, and the names of the victims. As it does, the work seems to bypass your thoughts and dig into your bones.

pain says Mary Schneider Enriquez, curator of modern and contemporary art at Harvard Art Museums who curated a Salcedo exhibition in 2016. “It actually calms you, soothes you, puts you in a state of silent reverence for those what she remembers.”

For Schneider Enriquez, who has known Salcedo since the 90s, the absence of literal violence gives his work strength, especially when so many of us are numb.

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

Fittingly, “Disremembered” (whose title comes from a line in Toni Morrison’s novel “Beloved”) isn’t about commemorating the lost, it’s about forgetting them.

Talking to mothers in Chicago, Salcedo says, they all mentioned “an added layer of pain.” For a few months, maybe a year, friends and family mourn with them, but one day they expect these mothers to let go and ostracize those who don’t. “Since they are unable to move on with this obligatory happiness that society imposes on us all, they are excluded,” she says.

Referring to “Sanbenito” capes, which were used to shame criminals during the Spanish Inquisition, Salcedo’s shawls will never keep their wearers warm. It is the clothes that create a kind of nudity, exposing vulnerability. Made from 12,000 to 15,000 needles, each shawl takes about two years for a team of 10 people. This compression of time, Salcedo says, reflects the way the past, present and future crumble for mourners, whose pain is no different a year or 10 years after their loss.

It is common for Salcedo’s work to have this meticulous, almost devotional quality. Conversations with survivors of sexual violence resulted in her “Tabula Rasa” series of sculptures, made up of wooden tables that she smashed and then carefully rebuilt, bit by bit. Covered in hairline cracks, the tables have a hushed resolution, as if they wanted to hold themselves together.

After a since-failed peace deal led to Colombian civil war fighters handing over their weapons, Salcedo melted down 37 tons of firearms and demanded women who had been raped by gunmen from the help hammer them into tiles for a gallery floor. The “fragments”, exhibited in a gallery in Bogotá, function as an “anti-monument”, intended to overthrow power: those who had been injured by these weapons could now literally stand on them.

If the Americans give up some of their weapons, Salcedo says, she has “a lot of ideas” about what to do with them. But in the meantime, as political debates drag on and calls for action go unanswered, Salcedo hopes those who have lost children to gun violence can find sanctuary in “Disremembered.”

“I hope they know I heard them. They had something to say and I was there to listen to them”, says the artist. “I want them to know that their pain hurts me and that I carry 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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