When Doris Salcedo cracked the floor of the Tate Modern in 2007, she left a 150-meter- long, indelible mark on contemporary art. Shibboleth not only created a rift in the Turbine Hall, but as its title suggests, shows how artists are often marginalized for their political ideals. It was also a poignant statement that the purpose of art is not to validate the past. A decade later, a similar theme involves a different floor, on the grounds of a colonial home that has been reduced to ruins, and located in the neighborhood of Bogotá’s Las Cruces.
As part of the peace accord signed between the out-going government and guerrilla of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), President Juan Manuel Santos announced that three monuments would be built in honor of the victims of the armed conflict, with the metal from an estimated 8,000 decommissioned weapons. Among the artists asked to create a “monument to peace” was Doris Salcedo, widely regarded as one of the country’s most important artists.
“I came to the conclusion that what was necessary was to build something that would conceptually oppose the very notion of a monument, that is, a ‘counter-monument,'” remarked Salcedo during the inauguration presided over by Santos. “As its name implies, a monument is monumental, presenting a triumphalist vision of the warlike past of our nation. Its main function is to submit and belittle us to a grandiose, totalitarian version of history,” said Salcedo, as guests stared at a floor of heavy metals, which before FARC handed over their weapons, were AK-47s.
When inspectors from the United Nations slammed shut the last of 17 shipping containers filled with rifles on August 16, 2017, to be handed over to the Colombian government in order for these remnants of war to be inventoried and smelted, the decommissioning process ended 52-years of conflict with FARC in which an estimated 280,000 people were killed and 7 million internally displaced.
After a musical interlude of Olivier Messiaen’s Quartet for the End of Time, Santos addressed the artist and audience, saying: “How can one encapsulate in one work, an entire war, and entire process towards peace?”
The former President also admitted that he had not understood Salcedo’s work, but after the artist’s explanation, the floor called Fragmentos (Fragments) marked a “fragment” in his life. “It takes a very creative mind, a really talented artist like Doris to invent this counter-monument,” said Santos.
Salcedo’s site-specific Framentos is the floor of a glass enclosure that has been designated as the National Museum’s new cultural annex for temporary installations. In order that future visitors to the gallery space appreciate that they are literally treading on what used to be weapons, a documentary directed by the Spanish journalist Mayte Carrasco, recounts the journey of the weapons from the moment they are collected, counted, and turned into tiles.
But, the hardest element of the floor isn’t metal, but memories. A handful of women from across Colombia, all victims of sexual violence, were asked by Salcedo to pick up a hammer and bash at smooth laminated sheets, the end product of the smelting process. Each sheet then became a layer within a tile that feels coarse and looks like a piece of crumpled aluminum foil.
If Fragmentos is a counter-monument, it can also be considered counter-aesthetic as “art cannot compensate with beauty, the horrors caused by war,” claims the artist, who has made memory a cornerstone of very visible installations. In 2015, after spending time in Los Angeles with women who lost their children to gang wars, the Solomon R. Guggenheim hosted a retrospective called ‘Doris Salcedo’ originally organized for Chicago’s Museum of Modern Art.
In a career that has spanned more than 30-years, Salcedo’s political art has always been empathetic toward victims, since early installations in the late 1990s when in response to the murder of journalist and peace activist Jaime Garzón, she filled Bogotá’s Plaza de Bolívar with tens of thousands of votive candles.
Even though Salcedo is the conceptual ironsmith of Fragmentos, she reaffirms the importance of the collaborative effort in creating her counter-monument to peace that recently opened to the public. Two other monuments, one in Havana, the other in New York, have yet to be inaugurated.
“Standing on this floor, anyone can find themselves in an equal, balanced and free space, from which they can remember, and never forget, the legacy of war,” said Salcedo, and reinforcing what one victim remarked during the ceremony: “If we can melt weapons, why can’t we melt hatreds?”
Fragmentos – Monumento a la paz. Cra 7 No.6B-30