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Doris Salcedo

Doris Salcedo at the Tate Gallery: Silent witnesses

The Columbian artist makes stark sculptures which probe the solitude of death

While death and mourning are always singular and secluded moments, they nevertheless open up a space for reflection which relatively few artists this century have wished to enter. Doris Salcedo (born 1958) works with the victims of violence in her native Colombia, a country which for most of this century has been plagued by the horror of hatred, intolerance and drug crimes. Her latest sculptures “Unland” (on show at the Tate Gallery's Art Now space until 18 July) take these events as a starting point from which to explore the silence, disjunction and monstrosity of these tragedies worldwide.

What motivated you to become an artist?

Doris Salcedo I always wanted to be an artist. Living in Colombia is like being in a capsule of concentrated experience. What may take you years to learn in the developed world about life, is squeezed into a few months there. I feel this is a privilege and that, as an artist, I have a moral responsibility. Yet I also know that art is utterly futile and often even perverse. It won't change anything. At the very there may be a few instances of connection with the viewer.

What do you expect the reaction of the British public to your work to be?

I think the British have always been very close to war. From the memory of the two world wars to more recent events such as the bombings against minority communities in London or the fighting in Kosovo. On a personal level we all have suffered pain in some way, whether physical or emotional. Although my work is rooted in a specific context, because that is what I am close to, it touches on universal experiences.

How do you make your work?

This is not a pleasant task for me. I interview those who have suffered violence and base my work on their testimony. They are usually people in the more distant rural areas of the country, who have suffered ongoing displacement as individuals, families and entire communities. The title of my latest work “Unland” reflects these circumstances. When I work I am very rigorous and stick closely to the facts: the materials and objects I have seen around me, the colours. Sometimes the people I interview even give me personal effects which I include in the sculpture. I become a witness of a witness, loyally reproducing the victim's experience. My works are not memorials, they are not about remembering. I am not interested in telling stories; when you deal with violence words are no longer possible. These sculptures are empty, there is nothing there but silence: the silence of the victim, the silence of death; the silence of the artist and of the viewer.

You seem to attach a great importance to the materials with which you work. They are crucial both on an emotive and formal level.

Yes. For example, in “Unland” I join disparate sections of old wooden tables together—we spend our life around tables and their familiarity helps to draw you in. Yet these objects have been forcibly united, they don't fit and appear to be like the mutated remains of an accident. I am as much interested by the tension raised from the clash of these materials (I often work with cement and wood for example) as I am by the reference to the many victims violently forced to disappear.

As you come closer to “Unland” you realise, for example, that one has a delicate piece of silk wrapped around it, bound to the table’s surface by individual strands of human hair. These are literally sown onto the table through pre-drilled holes and it took years of laborious work for a team of volunteers to complete the sowing. The fine web created appears to change colour as you walk round it—you want to caress these surfaces, you want to be close to them. We live in a society where everything is distant and things happen at great speed. My sculptures try to bring people near to them and to slow time down.

Appeared in The Art Newspaper Archive, 94 July 1999