The fourth floor of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago is typically an airy space with high ceilings and ample skylights, but currently it is crowded with an overabundance of furniture. Visitors are greeted with the pleasant mineral smell of dirt and a dense maze of wooden tables. The lighting is diffuse, almost grayed, and the galleries take on the look of a luminous dusk, a visual quiet that complements the solemn installations of Doris Salcedo’s retrospective exhibition. The labyrinth, titled Plegaria Muda (2008–10)—or “silent prayer”—consists of pairs of stacked tables with mirrored geometries, their tops separated by a layer of dark brown earth. In the troughs of the upturned table, blades of grass (a bit too neatly arranged to look accidental) poke through the wooden surfaces. The winding path through Salcedo’s prayer is effectively meditative.
After weaving through this opening work, one encounters a series of room-scale installations. As one moves through this archipelago of galleries, the somber stillness of Plegaria Muda continues. In one room, a waxy cloth the color of dried blood extends out from the back wall, its waves and wrinkles creating something of a topographic plane. In another, delicate garments made of thread and needles hang—empty and ethereal—on the wall. In yet another, the visitor finds coffin-like compartments embedded directly into the white gallery walls. Covered with semi-translucent skins, these grotesque shadow boxes contain single or mismatched shoes resting claustrophobically within.
Much has been written about Salcedo’s motivation for making her works and the raison d’etre for the artist’s many objects. Political violence in Salcedo’s homeland, Colombia; gun-related deaths in the cities in which she has worked; grief in response to inexplicable loss of human life; racism and other schisms that divide us violently, one from another—these are the subjects that captivate the artist’s interest. Working in response to these devastations, Salcedo has been creating sculptural and installation-based works for decades. As she remarks in the exhibition catalog: “The only possible response I can give in the face of irreparable absence is to produce images capable of conveying incompleteness, lack, and emptiness.” Both with and without this contextual admission, Salcedo’s works are often interpreted as evocative of human bodies.