The Colombian artist Doris Salcedo has spent nearly four decades rendering the dead and disappeared visible in her art. But she does not believe in an afterlife. “I think [German theologian and writer] Franz Rosenzweig says it well: when someone dies, someone else is cooking, someone else is working. Life goes on,” she says softly.

When we meet, she has just begun installing her exhibition at the Fondation Beyeler in Basel, a labour-intensive process compounded by both the extreme fragility and sheer weight of her sculptures. The show, Salcedo’s first major solo exhibition in a Swiss institution, opened last month and spans eight series of works and around 100 individual pieces.

Though she is not religious, Salcedo’s work is distinctly ritualistic; it is devoted to acts of mourning and remembrance. Creating political art, she has said, is “like a solitary liturgy”. Some of her works directly reference biblical stories. “Shibboleth”, a snaking fissure she installed the length of Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall in 2007, recalls the massacre of 40,000 Ephraimites who, unable to pronounce that word, were captured and executed by their enemies. It is as much a modern-day story about the ostracisation of immigrants.

View from above of people looking at a long snaking crack in a grey concrete floor
‘Shibboleth’ (2007) by Doris Salcedo © David Levene/eyevine

Much of Salcedo’s work is based on contemporary events of the most horrific kind: kidnappings, rapes, murders and dismemberments — retraced via testimonies of the victims’ families, many of them Colombian. But her work transcends particularities and borders; she has directed her attention to gun crime in the US and, more recently, she has focused on the European migrant crisis. “It is the issue of today,” she says. “The global south suffered under colonialism and now it is suffering as the dumping ground for the global north’s toxic waste. People say we are living in postcolonial or post-racist times, there’s nothing ‘post’ about it.”

“Palimpsest” (2013-17), which is on show at the Beyeler for a year, is the first piece by Salcedo to include the names of victims. For five years, she compiled a list of those who have perished trying to cross the Mediterranean and Atlantic. The names of the dead, more than 300 of them and ranging in age from 20 days to 46 years, are rendered in water, which rises from ducts in the floor to mimic tears. As soon as one name is formed, it ebbs away, and another appears superimposed over the last — “like a mother’s grief, which repeats over and over”, Salcedo says.

A brown-orangey material in folds
Detail from ‘A Flor de Piel’ (2013-14), made from thousands of rose petals sewn together

The limits of tangibility are tested in other works. “A Flor de Piel” (2013-14) is a blood-red blanket of thousands of rose petals, treated with collagen and stitched together. It is a flower offering to the memory of a Colombian nurse who was captured by paramilitary forces and tortured to death.

Stitched materials also appear in the three-part work “Unland” (1995-98), which Salcedo describes as one of the most difficult pieces she has ever created. She recounts how she was compelled to make one sculpture after spending time at an orphanage where she noticed a six-year-old girl, who had witnessed the murder of her parents, wearing the same dress every day. “One morning I arrived early to find her washing the dress so she could wear it again, even though it had become too small for her,” Salcedo says. “It was then I learned that the girl’s mother had made her the dress.” For the work, Salcedo painstakingly sewed cloth representing the orphan’s tunic into two tables using human hair. “It had to be something completely absurd, completely unbearable to honour this waste of life,” she says.

Long row of roses hung upside down along a street block
Untitled (1999) by Doris Salcedo commemorates murdered journalist Jaime Garzón © Doris Salcedo

Salcedo’s commitment to humanitarian causes has led her to sidestep the art world and create works in the streets. She placed bunches of roses in a 4.5km stretch to honour the journalist Jaime Garzón, who was assassinated by rightwing paramilitaries in Bogotá in 1999. More clandestinely, in 2002 she lowered chairs down the side of the Palace of Justice in the Colombian capital to mark the 1985 attack on the Supreme Court. Each chair stood for one of the more than 100 people who died during the 50-hour siege, which Salcedo herself witnessed having been working nearby.

Only one work has ever been commissioned by the Colombian government. “Fragmentos” (2018) is an art centre and space for remembrance where the floor is fabricated from more than 7,000 weapons surrendered in the peace process by Farc guerrillas, melted down and hammered into tiles by survivors of rape and sexual assault. “Rape is often seen as a domestic crime, but I wanted to show that it is also a political crime,” Salcedo says. It was her argument that rape affects all warring parties which eventually persuaded the Farc rebels to agree to the memorial.

Machine guns on fire in a furnace
‘Fragmentos’ (2018) required the melting down of thousands of guns used by Colombian rebels . . . 
Three women in black gloves hammer out thin silver sheets
 . . . and the resultant sheets were hammered out by victims of sexual abuse © Doris Salcedo. Juan Fernando Castro (2)

“Fragmentos” is, Salcedo says, her “anti-monument”. The work is all the more pertinent given the current revision of the role of monuments, but Salcedo thinks destroying colonial statues won’t achieve equality. “They should be recontextualised, a new meaning should be added to them,” she says. “I don’t agree that people should have to face these monuments in their cities every day, but a reflexive judgment should guide these acts. Equality will only be achieved through intelligence.”

Deeply poetic, Salcedo’s work is also unapologetically political. I ask her if she considers herself an activist. “Some of the works I do, particularly those in public, are activist but I don’t think art has to have a sociological angle. Activism can happen privately, it can happen in a quiet corner of a museum.”

Few museums in the world come with quieter corners than the Beyeler. Though the actual horrors articulated in her work have taken place thousands of miles away, Salcedo’s expressions of collective grief resonate here emphatically.

To September 17,

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