Something has gone terribly wrong.
This is where the art of Doris Salcedo and Keren Cytter begins. From there, the work of these two artists, who currently have exhibitions at the MCA, diverges. Salcedo focuses narrowly on specific historical moments of political violence committed against the underprivileged or oppressed; Cytter roams expansively across the vibe and feel of cosmopolitan life in the media-satured worlds of relatively affluent urban dwellers. Salcedo’s tone is somber and earnest; Cytter’s is loopy and irreverent. Salcedo’s materials are mostly sculptural and tangible, even when they reach to outline the contours of the vanished, the lost, the remembered, the murdered. Cytter’s materials are largely intangible. With Salcedo, we experience wooden furniture, cement, cloth, dirt, grass. With Cytter, we experience spliced video, cheap computer effects, recycled movie scripts and plots, doodles on paper.
It is worth noting that as with Salcedo, murders occur in Cytter’s work too. Violence skims across the surface of much of her artworks while, by contrast, it does something more like haunt Salcedo’s sculptural installations from deep within. Cytter reminds us how numb to violence media’s stale narrative techniques can make us—how unreal media can make violence feel. Her art evokes Susan Sontag’s argument that photography and other forms of media may seem to publicize violence, but in doing so, they generate apathy more than outrage (or sometimes an apathetic mode of outrage and an outrageous level of apathy). Salcedo’s art, in comparison, seeks to pierce through this numbness, to make real even what can never be recovered after political violence: lost love ones, safety and security, bodily and material wholeness. Her work trims away at the excess in search of an intensified core of loss, which in order to be experienced as loss, must also be experienced as survival. Keren Cytter adds and adds to her work in search of an intensified feeling of eerie absurdity. Her videos move, skitter, jump nonsensically. They have action, but the action ultimately seems to be about paralysis, the ways in which plots move forward but we, the spectators, stay in place. Couch potatoes to a killing.
Salcedo’s work is also about nonsense, the nonsense of political violence, but it attempts to recover some kind of meaning, some register of understanding in the face of slaughter. If Cytter wants to remind us that our normality as dictated by TV shows, films, and digital media barely masks madness, Salcedo suggests that even our most material and basic things—tables, chairs, dressers, shoes, dolls, shirts—terrify but also bring us back to the sanity of the real in the face of the untenably horrible. Both artists ask us to look, and most of all not to look away, in the aftermath of traumas big and small; to sense senselessness; to be a spectator while also questioning what spectatorship involves—and what it demands.
These are exhibitions that project extremely different tones and put the viewer in almost opposite moods. To get to witness them together at the MCA is a reminder both of how widely very different styles of art can range across shared themes—and also how sometimes they converge on one compelling topic, in this case the pressing issue of how we respond to violence in the modern world.
In April 1975, the MCA presented what has now been recognized as one of Burden’s most seminal and controversial performances, Doomed. Organized in conjunction with the exhibition Bodyworks and curated by Ira Licht, Burden’s performance was one of four artist events that took place at 237 East Ontario Street, the MCA’s first location. Vito Acconci, Laurie Anderson, and Dennis Oppenheim were also invited to perform in the galleries. Licht conceived the exhibition as a reflection on what he described as the growing practice of artists using their bodies as a means of performative expression. Licht viewed Bodyworks as connected to, but distinct from, Happenings and performance art, because the content of the work was often intimately personal—the artist’s physical body “bears the content and is both subject and means of aesthetic expression.”1
Following Burden’s earlier performances—which include Five Day Locker Piece and Shoot (both 1971); Deadman (1972); Through the Night Softly (1973); and the 22-day performance at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts gallery in New York, White Light/White Heat (1975), in which the artist lay prone on an elevated flat triangular platform in the corner of the gallery for the duration of the exhibition without eating, drinking, talking, or coming down—it isn’t surprising that the MCA took out a life insurance policy on the artist prior to his April appearance. That said, in keeping with the museum’s experimental ethos, the staff provided Burden with the minimal materials he had requested in advance, and embraced the uncertainty of what was to come.
Burden entered the MCA’s gallery around 8:20 pm on Friday, April 11, 1975. In his words, the performance “consisted of three elements: myself, an institutional wall clock, and a 5-by-8-foot sheet of plate glass. The sheet of glass was placed horizontally and leaned against the wall at a 45-degree angle; the clock was placed to the left of the glass at eye level. When the performance began, the clock was running at the correct time. I entered the room and reset the clock to twelve midnight.”2
There was a huge crowd of visitors and spectators at the beginning of the performance and media coverage (print, local and national broadcasts) increased the longer that Burden remained under the glass. At some point on Saturday, museum employee Dennis O’Shea (currently the MCA’s Manager of Technical Production) rented a video camera and began documenting the performance. This video document was preserved, and although it is not available for public use at this time, it is held in the MCA Archives and available as a reference for scholars.
When I asked O’Shea why he started recording the performance and why he took it upon himself to stay with Burden for the duration of the piece, he said that he knew something profoundly significant was taking place: “It was in the air. No one knew what it was exactly, but that lack of clarity was, in some ways, a part of what made Burden’s piece so exciting.” O’Shea described the atmosphere of the museum as one in which there was a real sense of community—the museum stayed open all night on Friday and Saturday (much to Burden’s surprise and ultimate dismay). O’Shea described the atmosphere as akin to a vigil and said that there was an air of reverence around Burden’s presence in the space. Because no one at the MCA knew how the piece would end, everyone was implicated in the work.
As Burden explained: “I was prepared to lie in this position indefinitely, until one of the three elements was disturbed or altered. The responsibility for ending the piece rested with the museum staff, but they were unaware of this crucial aspect. The piece ended when Dennis O’Shea placed a container of water inside the space between the wall and the glass, 45 hours and 10 minutes after the start of the piece. I immediately got up and smashed the face of the clock with a hammer, recording the exact time which had elapsed from beginning to end.”3 Interestingly, this marked the ending of the body of performance-based work for which Burden is so well known.
While Burden knew that the museum was unaware of the terms of the work, it seems clear that he simultaneously embraced the consequences of this uncertainty and expected that the museum would stop the performance when the galleries normally closed on Friday evening. After the piece ended, Burden said that he “kept thinking that the museum wasn’t worried about me and they’ve decided that if my intent is to, you know, die of thirst or something, then they’re going to go along with it.”4 One of the most powerful aspects of watching the documentation of Burden’s performance is the way that this tension—between the artist’s intent and the obligations of the museum—played out in an atmosphere that was designed to support the most radical work being made at the time.
After talking with O’Shea yesterday about his recollections of the weekend, I am struck by the fact that the duration of the work was not simply delimited by his final intervention into the performance space. Early on that Sunday morning, hours before the piece ended at 5:20 pm, O’Shea approached Burden and asked if he was hungry. He said that Burden looked up at him and smiled broadly, but remained in his prone position. O’Shea’s decision to bring the empty coffee pot and carafe of water was the result of his experience of being with, and caring for, the artist for the 45 hours that Burden was in the galleries.
In the wake of Burden’s death, the video documentation of Doomed strikes me as even more poignant. The questions the work raises in its explorations of durational performance, the possibility of death and the limitations of the human body, and the consequences of intervention are not only relevant to the piece as a work of art, but to the way in which Doomed profoundly affected, and implicated, all who were present.
Dennis O’Shea has continued to work at the MCA, in part, because of what he has described as the meaningful experience of interacting with contemporary artists as well as their work. In so many ways, it is this kind of experience—which shows the capacity that art and artists have to profoundly affect our lives—that makes the ending of Doomed so impactful. In O’Shea’s words: “In all of my years at the museum, I’ve never participated in an event that captured the imagination of a city in the way that Chris Burden’s Doomed did. It changed the way I see things to this day.”
1. Ira Licht, Bodyworks, exh. cat. (Chicago: Museum of Contemporary Art, 1975), n.p.
2. Chris Burden in Chris Burden: A Twenty-Year Survey, exh. cat. (Newport Beach: Newport Harbor Art Museum, 1988), 74.
4. Video documentation by Dennis O’Shea of Chris Burden’s Doomed, 1975, MCA Library and Archives.
Since the summer of 2011, when they made their debut at Wicker Park Fest, the poets of Poems While You Wait have been subverting the cliché of the solitary writer toiling in obscurity by bringing themselves—and their typewriters—to public places throughout the city of Chicago and composing commissioned poetry on demand for strangers. The process is simple: the customer signs up for a poem by requesting a subject of their choosing, typically paying a $5 per poem fee, and then waiting 10–15 minutes while one of the poets creates a custom-made, original poem to keep or to give away as a gift.
Over the past four years, the founding members of the group—Dave Landsberger, Eric Plattner, and Kathleen Rooney—have been joined by a rotating collective of local poets. Together, they have brought patrons all over the city—and in the suburbs— an unexpected and unpretentious encounter with poetry in public venues, ranging from the Adler Planetarium to the Garfield Park Conservatory to the Harold Washington Public Library to Dose Market to Randolph Street Market to all kind of neighborhood festivals, fundraisers, and events. They’ve even done a handful of weddings, aka Poems While You Wed.
A handful of the poems by that day’s participating poets is included here, and more can be found on the PWYW website. If you’re interested in learning more, please follow them at http://poemswhileyouwait.tumblr.com/ or contact them directly at email@example.com.
Bogotá, April 9, 1948: Three gunshots echoed through the city leaving the target, influential leader of Colombia’s Liberal Party and presidential candidate Jorge Eliécer Gaitán, dead. Built on years of social unrest and the escalating tensions between Liberals and Conservatives, this single event helped to alter the course of Colombian history forever.
Immediately after Gaitán’s death, an angry mob lynched the man suspected of his murder and abandoned his corpse in front of Colombia’s Presidential Palace. The riots that followed—the Bogotazo—marked the beginning of La Violencia in Colombia, a period of civil war that claimed approximately 200,000 lives through the 1950s. During La Violencia, Conservatives controlled the army and supported paramilitary forces while Liberals formed guerrilla groups in Colombia’s rural areas. In the 1960s new left-wing guerrilla groups formed as a result of the conflict between these factions and still affect Colombia to this day. Civilians were caught in the middle, primarily the rural poor, and were often the witnesses and victims of violent acts. The illegal drug trade in the 1980s, ongoing political corruption, accusations of human rights violations on the part of the military forces, and an increase in violent crime have complicated matters considerably, making any hopes for a peaceful future seem unattainable at times. Since 1958, the approximate year La Violencia ended, Colombia’s internal conflicts have claimed the lives of an additional 220,000 people. According to the Red Cross, there have been more than 92,000 reports of disappearances in Colombia in the last 50 years, and of that, approximately 68,000 people are still missing.
El Bogotazo, 1948
This incredibly violent history is at the heart of Colombian artist Doris Salcedo’s work. Developed from the viewpoint of the survivors, her works focus on mourning; the lingering, profound pain caused by a disappearance or a sudden death: the lack of closure, the desperate need to cling to hope, the unending questions, and the sense of emptiness. In referencing this sudden absence of a loved one, Salcedo often incorporates actions and objects that suggest wakes, such as the lighting of candles or the use of flowers. In a way, this language of loss is universal and Salcedo is not alone in presenting absence.
While walking through the exhibition Doris Salcedo, I was reminded of the work of Argentine artist Fernando Traverso, who also addresses forced disappearances. In 2001, Traverso began stenciling large images of bicycles across the city of Rosario, Argentina, ending only after he reached 350—the number of citizens who disappeared in Rosario during Argentina’s Dirty War in the late 1970s. As a common form of travel used by members of the resistance in Argentina, for many, an abandoned bicycle could only mean that the person was no longer around to claim it; that person had disappeared. By representing an object to which these individuals were directly connected, they serve as memorials. Often painted in the location the bicycle was abandoned, these haunting, ghost-like images permanently alter the location, forever fusing the person to the place, leaving a visible scar.
Fernando Traverso, work from 350, urban intervention, 2001–2004
Rather than using representational images as a memorial, Doris Salcedo employs actual objects, with a clear physical presence that cannot be avoided. The large pieces of furniture, used in many of her installations, fill up large portions of a room, often limiting the visitor’s ability to move freely around a space. Her works are also often fragmented. By taking these objects apart and reassembling them as well as adding other materials, they cannot be used again, at least not in the same way. They remain forever changed, just like those individuals who are left to mourn.
Installation view, Doris Salcedo, MCA Chicago, February 21–May 24, 2015. Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago
Despite the heavy subject at hand in Salcedo’s works, they are inherently beautiful, as subjective as that term may be. There is a tactile quality to a lot of the work achieved through different materials and contrasting textures; there is a sense of repetition and harmony; and there is an admirable sense of meticulous detail in the techniques used to assemble these works.
Installation view, Doris Salcedo, MCA Chicago, February 21–May 24, 2015
There is also an undeniable sense of human presence in the objects Salcedo chooses for her installations that goes beyond their obvious utilitarian function and this is sometimes suggested only in fragmentary form. Hair, bones, and clothing are clearly part of some of the pieces if you look closely. In Unland: the orphan’s tunic, Unland: irreversible witness, and Unland: audible in the mouth, Salcedo joins parts from different tables to create a complete unit, but she did not try to hide the juncture between them, making them appear fragile, broken, and scarred. The artist then sewed human hair and raw silk through these tables, giving them a delicate, skin-like surface that makes them almost anthropomorphic. To see these details in Salcedo’s work, however, it is necessary to look so closely that the larger object and its practical function can no longer be seen.
Doris Salcedo, Unland: the orphan’s tunic (detail), 1997. Wooden tables, silk, human hair, and thread. 31 1/2 x 96 1/2 x 38 1/2 in. (80 x 245 x 98 cm). “la Caixa” Contemporary Art Collection. Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago
While many of her works are a reaction to particular events, most works lack any specific reference to a particular place or time within them. In a way, they become more general presentations of human suffering caused by a profound sense of absence, reflecting the experience of loss for anyone at any time. And yet, her pieces always reveal a sense of hope and optimism. Plegaria Muda (“silent prayer”), for example, is an installation that limits and redirects the visitor’s movements across the space, much like a maze—transforming the viewer into a participant rather than a witness. I found myself walking back and forth through the work instead of straight across the gallery, an action that seems to be at once directionless, confusing, and meditative.
Doris Salcedo, Plegaria Muda (detail), 2008–10. Wood, concrete, earth, and grass. 166 parts, each: 64 5/8 x 84 1/2 x 24 in. (164 x 214 x 61 cm). Overall dimensions variable. Installation view, Doris Salcedo, MCA Chicago. Inhotim Collection, Brazil. Photo: Nathan Keay, © MCA Chicago
The individual blocks that define the space of Plegaria Muda consist of two tables placed one on top of the other, with the uppermost table placed upside down and a layer of earth between the two. Tiny and delicate blades of grass grow through the wooden planks of the uppermost table, a reminder of life prevailing, according to the artist. At the same time, however, the powerful beauty of nature in relation to man-made objects can also become a reminder of death.
Frederick Catherwood, Castle at Tuloom, 1844
As with the nineteenth-century illustrations of Mesoamerican sites by Frederick Catherwood, where ancient structures are covered by foliage, we are aware that long after we are gone, nature will once again reclaim the land. When we look at Plegaria Muda, we are left to wonder what happened to those who once used these tables. We know that typically we turn tables and chairs upside down when we no longer need them. We are aware of the passage of time due to the presence of plants on the furniture. And we know that as time goes by and plants continue to grow on and around an object, there may be a point in which we may not be able to see the object anymore. But this is also the way memory works. With time, we bury things. But they are still there, underneath, and deep down we may not want to forget after all.
Although Salcedo and Traverso address violent acts, their works do not dwell on the events themselves, but rather on commemorating the victims and those that were forever changed by these acts. The violent episodes in Colombia’s history cannot be changed, but Salcedo’s installations serve as a reminder that the lives of those affected were human lives, much like ours.