A Colombian artist’s installations and performances became tools of mourning victims of political violence, corruption and civil war.

“Art cannot explain things but at least, art can expose them. So that is why art here is so important,” Doris Salcedo says as she takes the Guardian’s journalists on a tour of Bogotá and her studio as part of The Artist and Their Cities project.

Doris Salcedo, one of the country’s most renowned artist, lives and works the capital of Colombia. She creates sculptures that can be called poetic memorials to victims of violence, corruption and enforced internal migration. Doris says her sculptures gave dwellers of her home city tools to express their mourning.

“Bogotá, like any other city, is the physical manifestation of political, economic and social issues at stake. The difference in Bogotá, is that those forces are brutal,” Salcedo shares her vision of the city.

She tells the story of the armed conflict between the government and the guerrilla forces in 1985, when guerrilla groups took over the Palace of Justice, which caused a real war an hour later that lasted for two days. Society has been feeling consequences of the conflict for many years after the incident:

“For 30 years I’ve been immersed in the tragedy generated by political violence. Corrupt politicians, corrupt developers, the long civil war, a war that has displaced almost 6 million people from the countryside. But those problems I don’t think define this city.”

Salcedo has a studio in the northeast part of the city. It was designed by her long-term collaborator architect Carlos Granada. She has 15 full time studio assistants. The area is abandoned, so there are many workshops and cheap materials, where craftsmen and artists can create any works.

“Some crazy bureaucrat decided that it is illegal to plant trees on the streets of this neighbourhood. So this is my illegal tree, it grew out of the earth. I didn’t do anything, I just took care of it,” Doris shows a small tree near the studio’s door.

She made several public artworks in public spaces of Bogotá. She views them as acts of mourning. The city’s central square, where the Palace of Justice was attacked more than 30 years ago, is still the political heart of Bogotá. The old building was ruined to erase memories of those events, and a new building was built. But people still have memories. Doris made an installation consisting of empty chairs sliding on ropes down the facade of the new Palace of Justice at 11:35am, the time when the first guard was killed by the guerrilla.

“As I was standing there on that corner,” Doris recalls her installation, “people were coming up to me, a lot of people remember exactly what they were doing in the moment what the battle was raging. I thought it was only my memory that was alive in 2002. And then I discovered that a lot of people had memories.”

In 2002, FARC, a radical left-wing terrorist group, kidnapped 12 congressmen to exchange them for prisoners. All hostages were later killed.

“I was finishing another piece and then we learn the news that the congressman of Valle that had been kidnapped for five years had been murdered by the guerrillas. I decided to light 24,000 candles on the main square of Bogotá,” Salcedo says about her installation on July 3, 2007. “And it was wonderful, because as we start working there were like 20 of us, and of course it was a task that was impossible for us to complete. Thousands of people were coming and they were all helping. So it became an act of mourning that was collective. One of the tasks, the important task for an artist here is to try to give society tools of mourning.”

“I think that creating a poetics of mourning is very important. So that is why art here is so important. And it is necessary,” Doris sums up.

Photo: W Magazine

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