We all get used to certain habits, for better or worse. As we say in Colombia “We are animals of customs,” meaning that we all have our well-established, inherited, or willingly acquired habits. Over time, we eventually get used to the things that we’ve lived with by chance, or acquired by choice, and we can adjust sooner or later to nearly any given situation until it becomes a normal part of our routine.
Growing up in a country that has been afflicted by an armed conflict since before I was born, I became used to knowing and seeing people killed, kidnapped, or forced to leave their homes. The war on drugs has also proven to be ineffective in many ways for us and for our neighboring countries. Even though we as Colombians are fully aware that the violent events that take place in our country are horrifying and unacceptable, for the majority of us, it has become a part of our daily routine. We are the passive observers of a social and political crisis—an unfortunate habit we’ve acquired.
This violence has become a monster with many limbs, one that has managed to prevail for more than 60 years, feeding on illegal and terrorist activities and human lives; blocking our inherent natural and intellectual possibilities for national and economic growth. We have gotten used to that too. It is worth mentioning, though, that the Colombian government and the Colombian guerrillas are currently working on negotiating a peace treaty, and that violence today is not manifested in the same way or with the same intensity as it did 10 years ago. In a very positive sense this is the closest that Colombia has come to reaching certain agreements that could create a broader sense of safety and peace, and that gives us hope.
I was studying art at the Universidad de los Andes when I participated in Doris Salcedo’s intervention at the Plaza de Bolívar in Bogotá, the city that both Salcedo and I grew up in. I was familiar with some of her work and had attended one of her lectures at a local university, the Univeridad Jorge Tadeo Lozano. I recall her explaining that the word experience comes from the latin experiri which means “to cross over danger.” I will always remember that about her.
The Plaza de Bolívar is surrounded by four buildings: The Palace of Justice is on the north side. Straight across, on the south side of the Plaza, is the National Capitol, where the congress of the Colombian Republic meets, and just behind that is the Palace of Nariño, where the president lives. A Catholic cathedral is located on the east side, and on the west side is the Liévano Palace, where the mayor of the city works. Doris Salcedo was walking past the National Capitol when I saw her, easily recognizable due to her distinct, voluminous black hair.
I can’t remember exactly how, or why, or with whom I went with to participate in Acción de Duelo, but I do remember knowing that this installation was an homage to the victims of violence in Colombia, and it felt that way. There was a respectful silence that was so loudly heard throughout the Plaza. The day was becoming night; one of the many beautiful sunsets in Bogotá was displaying its array of oranges, pinks, reds, and yellows. La Plaza de Bolívar is a very large area and it was full of thick, white candles, placed on the ground. I wouldn’t be able to say how many there were, maybe more than a thousand. Strangers were passing along matches and lighters to light the candles with. The flames were affected by the strong winds that blow in between the eastern and western mountains. We had to light the candles several times, sharing fire and silence. It was a very special opportunity—to be together and to feel as if we were doing something meaningful for our country.
The installation Acción de Duelo was a space created for thought and for remembrance. It was an invitation to shift our routine in a different direction outside of our own habits, heads, and comfort zones. It was an invitation to stop feeling powerless and busy and actually do something within our reach to manifest support, defiance, and sadness. All of us who were present there that evening had experienced violence in different ways and we all mourned accordingly.
Today I see photos of this installation, and Doris Salcedo’s work in general, as a silence that speaks louder than many words, perhaps a prelude to meaningful dialogues about art, our present realities, and social change. I see her artworks as actions that carry our story and make it more visible; a reminder of our sometimes regrettable human condition. It is important to listen and to learn from these silent voices, because they let us know that there are different ways, powerful ways, of representing the stories, and speaking up for the people who do not have the means, either by chance or by choice, to do so themselves.
Having seen the first series of educational maps by our friends Lisa Smith and Caroline Linder of ODLCO, which used the idea of the cutaway drawing, we were very excited to get the commission to undertake the next series. When considering our approach, we were keen to acknowledge and build upon the success of ODLCO’s series by retaining the focus on the building as the means for prompting interactions within the museum, but we developed our own graphic treatment.
Our proposal was based around the creation of a physical-scale model of the building that would provide an ongoing stage-set for the representation of activities inside the museum. In the end we created five different models to photograph for the piece.
These were populated by figures similar to those used by model railway enthusiasts, most of which were made by the German company Preiser.
The building models are made at 1:50 scale from white card and foam board. The process was quite time-consuming but enjoyable. The MCA has a very detailed CAD model of the museum that it allowed us to use. Once we had defined the scenes we wanted to create, we could isolate faces of the CAD model and print them to scale onto card. We then mounted these onto foam board, cut them out, and assembled them.
There were some tricky sections, like the curving stairs leading up from the fishpond, but it was a fun challenge!
The models are like old Hollywood film sets—they look good from the front, but behind they are all glue and masking tape. We intentionally left them white so that the viewer’s eye would be drawn to the colored figures and the graphic elements that would be overlaid on top. Finally, we lit the scenes and photographed them to provide images for each page of the guide.
For the inside of the guide, which opens out to show one large image of the front of the museum, we tried to set up as many figures as possible in natural-looking poses. There are couples, groups, families, children, someone in a wheelchair, a mother with a pram sitting on the steps, people walking their dogs, etc. We also created scale sculptures for the plinths on either side of the stairs and the plaza, and invented fictional exhibition posters with the help of Bryce Wilner from the MCA’s Design, Publishing, and New Media Department, who also designed the typographic treatment and graphic identity for the guide. It’s been a lot of fun to work on and we’re looking forward to creating more models and stories for the next installment.
MCA: Where are you from?
Sergio Clavijo: I am Colombian, but I live in Montreal, Canada.
MCA: How did you end up in Canada?
SC: My family. I am married to a Canadian, and now I have two sons who were born there. Well, one is born, but the other will be here in April.
MCA: Oh congratulations! That’s wonderful!
How long have you been in Chicago?
SC: I’ve been here for three weeks now.
MCA: How long have you been working for Doris Salcedo?
SC: Since 2001. I worked with her for 10 years, then stopped to study, then I went back to [Doris’s] studio, and then I moved to Montreal less than five years ago. I’ve been involved with the works but not with the studio production in Bogotá.
MCA: What did you study during the break from the studio?
SC: I studied architecture; I earned a master’s degree in architecture. Even today my work is in architecture.
MCA: What did you work on today?
SC: I’ve been working on the installation of Atrabiliarios, and the overall setup of the room. We’ve been finalizing bringing the work into the walls, which is a big part of that installation. Putting them together with the actual wall itself is fairly complicated to set up so that it is flush with the existing wall. That’s the struggle for today.
Doris Salcedo. Atrabiliarios, 1992–97. Shoes, drywall, paint, wood, animal fiber, and surgical thread. 43 niches and 40 boxes, overall dimensions variable. Installation view, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney. Mervyn Horton Bequest Fund 1997, Art Gallery of NSW collection, © Doris Salcedo
MCA: That’s almost what we were going to ask you next. What is the most difficult piece you’ve worked on and what makes it difficult?
SC: That’s a hard question to answer because there is a challenge, an extreme challenge, in each of Doris’s works. Nonetheless, it’s a challenge that’s [overcome] through the talent of several people; there’s not one mastermind here. There’s Doris who directs and creates a concept, but then anything you see happening in terms of structure, installation, or design of crates or packages is [a product] of the many people who are involved. They are part of a studio and they are involved. They’re not consultants. All the guys from the studio that are here have experience in these challenges. I think every one of them would answer very differently about what is the most challenging, but most likely their answer would be “what is to become,” that is, what they’re working on installing right now is the most challenging. It’s very hard to think of a more complicated thing after installing the most complicated thing you’ve ever done!
MCA: On a related note, what’s the hardest thing to do in your job? Whether it’s physical, personal, or even the emotional weight of the artwork.
SC: The hardest thing is to get people involved, the other workers. Meaning that there are professionals attached to each exhibition venue, like drivers, electricians, lighting technicians, even security. When you have worked on a piece of art you have a certain sensibility towards certain aspects of the piece. Not in conservation, but in terms of the piece itself. There’s an extreme care and professionalism at a museum, and especially here at the MCA, but somehow you want more. That’s very difficult because people are doing their jobs properly and correctly but you say, “No, no, you can make that drywall more flat if you put a shim in there.” So we ask for a shim. It doesn’t follow the logic of a schedule, it doesn’t follow the logic of building codes, but it’s part of this difficulty to [make it perfect]. . . . The MCA crew has shown me their equipment and their process. They open up and tell me the way they do the work normally. By sharing this information we’re able to work together to get the best result, for instance, “if you do two coats of that we might be able to get a better result,” and that kind of collaboration is happening. There’s no planning for this kind of work, there are no instructions. It’s in the interaction.
MCA: Since you’ll be here for a while longer, is there anything you want to do while you’re in Chicago?
SC: I want to get the installation done on time! But I’m also very interested in the architecture of Chicago.
The skyscrapers but also the Prairie-style residences, the Frank Lloyd Wright buildings, the [Louis] Sullivan’s, and also the Mies van der Rohe work that’s here. It’s all very valuable. If there’s a chance, some of the studio people here would like to try to go to the [Frank Lloyd Wright–designed] S. C. Johnson building in Racine, Wisconsin.
I hope this letter finds you well. I have exciting news to share about my latest project called The Happenings: a series of events inspired by the MCA Archive. For this series, I developed three performance events that bring art history alive through interactive music, dance, and play. I would love for you to join in on the fun!
You’re probably wondering . . . What is your inspiration for this performance series?
I found my muse for this project in an introduction statement from the MCA Chicago on our Fortieth Anniversary catalogue:
“No discussion of the past and future of the Museum of Contemporary Art can begin without the art. Loud or quiet, bold or subtle, it plays varied roles within our galleries: the innovator, the empiricist, the explorer, the storyteller, the soothsayer, the provocateur. Contemporary art is alive, enthralling, and at play.
Yet we have stood fast in our role as a guardian of cultural wealth. We have withstood booms and bursts in the art world and beyond, periods in which contemporary art has been celebrated or reviled. Through it all, we are committed to introducing new audiences to the art of our time, maintaining a broad and diverse marketplace of ideas, and cultivating future generations of art lovers. At the same time, we celebrate and encourage artistic pioneering and risk-taking. Since we first opened our doors in 1967, we have presented and helped immortalize living artists, bringing their forward thinking work into the hollowed halls of art history. We mine the terrain and dig for the innovative and substantive, pulling new gems to the surface.”
After I read this statement, my first thought was AWESOME! I felt completely inspired to develop interactive performances influenced by the MCA’s history but with a contemporary twist!
For me, play is the catalysis for the imagination, social bonding, and expression. I enjoy creating opportunities for social and playful experimentation in my performances. It would be amazing if you could join me in ‘rewriting history’ by participating in this series of performances:
In the first “happening,” 10 Body Performances, you can create your own performance art in the galleries. I am leading MCA visitors in a series of workshop exercises to assist them with the creation of personal body performances.
I know live performance may not be your cup of tea (even though I think you’d be great at it!), so you can also join in by photographing the workshop performances using your smartphone. Tag #MCAStudio to your photos on Instagram or your tweets, and your images will be projected throughout the gallery during the program. So, whether you are an exhibitionist or a voyeur there is an opportunity to participate in the fun!
10 Body Performances takes place tonight from 6 to 7 pm, starting in the MCA Atrium. I hope to see you there!
Your friend in art,
The journey begins in Vienna back in September 2012 at the opening of Who’s Afraid of Red, Black and Green at the Secession, the city’s most prestigious contemporary arts venue.
The Antwerp museum of contemporary art M HKA is next; the site of the exhibition Kerry James Marshall: Painting and Other Stuff. Curated by my successor Nav Haq, the exhibition opened in October 2013, an occasion I certainly did not want to miss.
After closing in January 2014, the Antwerp show decamped to the Kunsthal Charlottenborg in Copenhagen, where it opened its doors in late February.
Next time, join us as we look for traces of Kerry’s interest in public art across Chicago, as well as stops in London and Spain.