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Image courtesy of Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (CAM-FCG), Lisbon, Portugal

Plegaría muda by Doris Salcedo

Inês Beleza Barreiros | New York University

Plegaría muda by Doris Salcedo. Curated by Isabel Carlos. Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation (CAM). Lisbon, Portugal. 12 November 2011 to 22 January 2012.

Plegaría muda (Silent/Mute Prayer), an installation by the Colombian artist Doris Salcedo, shown in Lisbon, Mexico City, São Paulo, Rome, London, Malmo, San Francisco, and Chicago, was celebrated by Mexican critic Cuauhtémoc Medina in ArtForum as one of the most remarkable exhibitions of 2011. It awakens the ghosts of Colombia’s recent history by re-opening the archive of state violence. One of the points of departure for the piece is the “Falsos positivos” (False Positives) scandal, which unfolded in the Colombian and international media in late 2008 and 2009. Between 2003 and 2009, about 1,500 marginalized civilians were recruited by the Colombian army, presumably for work, but were instead removed to remote locations, murdered, and buried in mass graves without any kind of identification; their bodies were subsequently presented as guerrilla fighter causalities. These extra-judicial killings stemmed from the implementation of President Uribe’s “pacification” policy, which consisted of a system of rewards and incentives that included the use of body counts to measure progress in the counter-insurgency campaign. The explosion of the scandal eventually led to the dismissal of the army officers involved, but a sense of impunity remains for the families of victims, who rightly do not feel that justice has been served.

General view of Plegaría Muda 
Image courtesy of CAM-FCG

“Memory-sculpture” (Huyssen 2003), “model of pain” (Basualdo 2000), “moral topography” (Gilroy 2007), “counter-archeology” (Weizman 2007), “aesthetics of the cut” (Bal 2007), “imagined necropolis” (Medina 2011), and “praise to vulnerability” (Carlos 2011) are just some of the epithets applied to describe Salcedo’s body of work. As with her previous works, Plegaría Muda is the result of a long process of research and production alongside the families of the victims. However, Plegaría Muda is far from explicit about the event in which it is anchored. As the artist herself states in her presentation of the piece, she seeks to articulate the different experiences and images of the Colombian conflict with the violence that characterizes every civil war.

This is precisely what is embedded in the work on display at Centro de Arte Moderna of Calouste Gulbenkian Foundation in Lisbon, where the viewer is confronted by a labyrinth-like installation consisting of about 162 units, each unit being formed by a pair of wooden tables lying one upturned on top of the other; the surfaces of these are separated by a thick layer of Colombian earth. The soil is traversed by an irrigation system that sustains a sparse smattering of vegetable life, which bursts through the top of each inverted table. On first view, the visitor is challenged by the almost perfect alignment of morphologically identical structures, which resemble a gigantic archive. However, on approaching the piece, this impression is disturbed by an eruption of organic detail. The dialectic contrast between these two perspectives provides substance to the installation—the scene inverts the placid image of the phantasmatic archive/cemetery experienced on the first viewing and replaces it with the troubling sight of upturned tables, rummaged earth, and unexpected vegetation bursting through cracks in the table tops.


By revolving the earth and the tables, by digging out the dead, and, in doing so, also revolving the viewers, installing them as participants in a silent mourning for the victims of extra-judicial killings, Salcedo not only transforms the history of Colombia and the consistency of its archive but also converts viewers into agents (performers) of that transformation by confronting them, in situ, with the dialectical essence of the event. In fact, the installation transports the viewer into a dialectical atmosphere, which captures much of what Walter Benjamin meant with his concept of “dialectical image” (1999)—an image produced by the conflict between two juxtaposed experiences from different times, carrying contradictory and irreconcilable meanings and narratives. This dialectical tension, between the stable image of an archived event and the unstable experience of its re-installation, is, therefore, essential to the project of Plegaría muda, ensuring the work transcends the simple terrain of aesthetic efficiency (as a museum object) and installing, within the very (un)installation fostered in the viewer, the possibility of a real trial, impeaching the archive’s and history’s tendency to pacify, erase, and hide the wounds of the “False Positives” scandal.

In this respect, Plegaría muda echoes the political and formal opposition between the knowledge produced by the "archive" and that produced by the "repertoire," as discussed by Diana Taylor (2003): on the one hand, the piece captures the naturally rigid nature of the archive, aligning and classifying a series of historical facts. On the other, the plasticity of the repertoire, symbolically represented (but not exhausted) by the eruption and growth of organic life, offers the potential for the performative reopening of the event, preventing its closure and submission to any archival passivity. At its most immediate political level, Plegaria muda, couldn’t be more incisive: political power with its endless rhetoric, which hindered the exercise of justice in the first place, is here counter-posed by the performative silence of mourning, through which Salcedo’s gesture makes us witnesses, interpreters and potential conveyers. As viewers (performers) of Plegaría muda, we all become Colombians.

Current and Future Venues
Museo Nazionale delle Arti del XXI Secolo (MAXXI). Rome, Italy. 15 March to 24 June     2012.

White Cube Gallery. London, England. 25 May to 30 June 2012.

Pinacoteca do Estado de São Paulo. São Paulo, Brazil. 15 December 2012 to TBD.

Chicago Museum of Contemporary Art/San Francisco MoMA. Scheduled for 2013. 

Inês Beleza Barreiros is a Ph.D. candidate in the Department of Media, Culture, and Communication Studies at NYU. She holds a Masters degree in Contemporary Art History from Universidade Nova de Lisboa and a BA in History and Art History from Universidade de Lisboa. Her interests are situated at the intersection of visual culture and memory studies and their articulation within the history of the Portuguese empire, in particular its contemporary “survival forms” and the notions of saudade, ruination, and exile. In addition to writing her dissertation, “Imperial Shadows: The Survival Forms of the Portuguese Empire,” she is currently developing a film project, Atlântico Pardo (Dun Atlantic). She is the author of Under the Gaze of Shameless Gods: Visual Culture and Contemporary Landscapes (Lisbon: IHA-EAC/Colibri, 2009).

Bal, Mieke. 2007. “Earth Aches: the Aesthetics of the Cut.” In Doris Salcedo: Shibboleth. Ed. Achim Borchardt-Hume et al., 41-63. London: Tate Modern Publishing.

Basualdo, Carlos et al.. 2000. Doris Salcedo. London: Phaidon.

Benjamin, Walter. 1999 [1927-1940]. The Arcades Project. Translated by Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

Carlos, Isabel et al. 2011. Doris Salcedo Plegaría Muda. London: Prestel.

Gilroy, Paul. 2007. “Brokenness, Division and the Moral Topography of Post-Colonial Worlds.” In Doris Salcedo: Shibboleth. Ed. Achim Borchardt-Hume et al., 23-29. London: Tate Modern Publishing.

Huyssen, Andreas. 2003. Presents Pasts: Urban Palimpsests and the Politics of Memory. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Medina, Cuauhtémoc. 2011. “Best of 2011.” In ArtForum, Vol. 50, no. 4: 202-203.

Taylor, Diana. 2003. The Archive and the Repertoire: Performing Cultural Memory in the Americas. Durham: Duke University Press.

Wiezman, Eyal. 2007. “Seismic Archeology.” In Doris Salcedo: Shibboleth. Edited by Achim Borchardt-Hume et al., 31-39. London: Tate Modern Publishing.