For famed Colombian artist Doris Salcedo, sewing a vast sheet with the names of victims of the country's civil conflict is a sprawling but humble attempt at some form of salvation.
BOGOTA — Colombia, a country that has suffered more than a century of intermittent civil violence, is not polarized. It is broken. Such is the metaphor proposed by one of this country's most prominent artists Doris Salcedo, in her latest work entitled Sumando ausencias ("Adding Up Absences").
Salcedo would remind viewers that art is not just an instrument for reflecting on reality in times of crisis, but also saves and repairs what has become irreparable by other means.
In Sumando ausencias, hundreds of volunteers have written with ash the names of some 2,300 victims of our civil war on vast white sheet segments spread across the capital's central public space. This is a war that has become both mundane and alien to us, which is the rip or "fracture" the artist wishes to sew back. To be sure, this is not a fracture of oblivion — for to forget, you first have to know — but a more insidious type of social wound, our indifference or inability to feel for others.
The work had two settings: the National University museum and Bolívar Square. The first served as a workshop and lab, where Salcedo's volunteers tried out different shapes, materials and production methods that led to their finally achieving a clean, uniform result. Thus the work would not end up looking like a patchwork, but a solid white corpus, seven kilometers in diameter. It was then set up in Bolívar Square, following specific protocols: The aim was not just to tie sheet segments together but reconstruct a single "fabric of absences."
In the courtyard of the National University museum, teams spread out the sheets over more than 20 tables. One person would put together a name with letters joined like a puzzle. Another would fill the inside of the letters with glue before a third person sprinkled ash on it. The sheet was then lifted solemnly and wrapped like a shroud around the museum's exhibition space, turning it into a sea of silences, with hundreds of names spread out like bodies on a white background.
On the morning of October 11, these canvases were taken to Bolívar Square. There began another story, in which hundreds of volunteers rejoined to continue the stitching work begun by others. Their needlework tied together fragments of our history we never have known, and which now have names: Jairo Botero, Carlos Jiménez, Elsyn Medina — and so many others. Names coming back to life amid the stitches.
Around midnight that Tuesday, a small group was still sewing the sheets together. The square had become all white, and the names on the sheets were barely visible, like fading shadows or memories growing dimmer by prolonged absence. Yet the white was not pale, instead filling the night with dazzling brightness. As if, for a moment, everything was all right in Colombia.