One I first saw her work at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston. Four separate compartments in a wall that contained shoes, and over them, cowhide that was roughly stiched on with black thread, the kind used for stitching gashes in a human body. The shoes, ghostly remnants behind the stitched cowhide, belonged to people who had been murdered in Columbia's civil war. Such a powerful depiction of the concept. The staff person helpfully told me that I could see more of her work at the Fogg Museum at Harvard.
I like to explore all kinds of artists' work because it makes me wonder how I can transfer their ideas to the theater. (Did I just admit to stealing ideas? I think I did!) I l search out someone like Salcedo's work and think, could this be a set for one of my plays? Or I look at work like hers and think what, play could I write with these sculputures in it?
At the Fogg we went looking for her exhibition. You know how it goes in museums--sometimes you wander from gallery to gallery, not even knowing what you're looking for, but you know whatever it is, is around here somewhere. It's the nature of elusive art; it's not necessarily working in the same reality we're living in, not playing by the rules we live by, it won't necessarily raise its hand in greeting like a friend saving a seat at a cafe. But on an upper floor we stumbled upon a room filled with sculptures of chairs set willy-nilly in the space, and for a while I stopped looking for Salcedo's work because of the power of the sculpture in that space distracted me from my search. I can continue in a minute, I thought; meanwhile I want to examine this.
What struck me was how the artist used and filled the entire space, which is how it is for a theater artist. We fill spaces--we do, that grand empty stage--and someone knew what they were doing with that space. It made me laugh and smile, which I do a lot in museums when I see something that makes me happy, like the time I saw a nail driven into a piece of 2 x 4 and presented as sculpture. Simply brilliant! Sometimes I've had the staff think I was laughing at a piece because I thought it was perhaps silly (like the nail in the 2 x 4!) as if maybe they thought I was some anti-NEA nutjob. Times are a little weird right now. But the laugh is a reaction to pure delight of seeing a work of art just nail what it was saying. It's like "hearing" a language that you can understand, only the hearing is sight behind your eyes and the resonance isn't in your eardrum but in your chest and your brain. And so it was with this exhibition. And of course, you probably knew before me that it was Doris Salcedo's work I was looking at.
And here we weren't looking at little shoe-size compartments cut into a wall. These were entire rooms filled, or rather, they commanded the space but not really "filling" it. The pieces filled the space with their power, and not their physicality.
One gallery contained individual silk-like sculptures constructed of handwoven silk threads filled with tiny needles, like nasty little booby traps hung on the wall, you put one on and you die from a hundred pin pricks. The size of a shirt, one sculpture could command an entire wall.
Another gallery contained a tapestry lying on the floor comprised of thousands of preserved hand-sewn red rose petals (rose petals! sewn together!) the work is intended as a shroud for a nurse who was tortured to death in the Colombian war. Tender and duplicitious, our action and reaction to death.