As in any public square in a Western European city on a sunny day, people casually gather and stroll around the Plaza de Bolívar, the central square of Colombia’s capital, Bogotá.footnote1 The imposing façades of the grandiose colonial buildings that flank the square add to its monumentality and tranquillity. One could easily mistake it for St Mark’s in Venice. But the Plaza de Bolívar is no urban arcadia: it is under constant surveillance and policed by an alarming number of soldiers armed with submachine guns. Their presence not only reflects the continuing militarization of the country’s civic life, but also recalls the Plaza’s specific role in its troubled history. In November 1985, the Palace of Justice on its northern side was the scene of one of the most notorious confrontations between the Colombian Army and the country’s leftist insurgents. On November 6th, with negotiations fraying between the Betancur government and the guerrillas—farc, M-19, eln—amid rising Army and paramilitary violence, 35 M-19 guerrillas seized the Supreme Court ‘in the name of peace and social justice’, demanding that Betancur come and negotiate with them. The Army took charge and, ignoring pleas from hostages, launched an all-out assault, firing heavy artillery at the building. When a conflagration broke out, the military forbade the firefighters to tackle the blaze. By the next morning the Palace of Justice was in ruins, the bodies of guerrillas and civilians alike often charred beyond recognition. Over a hundred people had died.
Exactly seventeen years after the guerrillas had first entered the building—at precisely 11.25am on November 6th, 2002—an empty wooden chair appeared on top of the now rebuilt Palace of Justice and began slowly making its way down the high stone façade. It was followed by another chair, then another; before too long, a dozen chairs were descending; then several dozen more. Over the course of November 6th and 7th, some 280 chairs made the descent, ending at the exact time that the Army had finally taken the ruined building. The simple wooden chairs were all used ones, many aged with the imprint of the passing years. Everyday objects, they evoked the absence of those no longer sitting on them, and their slow-motion cascade down the side of the building prompted images of people hoping to escape to safety.
This uncanny commemoration was, in fact, a work by the Colombian artist Doris Salcedo, who has consistently sought to keep events such as the Palace siege—events that the West, as well as many in Colombia, would be happier to ignore, if not to forget—alive in people’s memories and the public consciousness. As an artist whose work has, since the 1990s, rarely been exhibited in her home country, Salcedo’s representation of the victims of Colombia’s undeclared civil wars raises important questions about its reception and consumption in the West: not only in public art museums but also in the commercial markets that trade in, and on, her art. Although it is not usual for art criticism to engage with the market side of artistic output, it is nevertheless important to see that art and commerce are in an intricate, and often opaque, symbiotic relationship. The friction generated by this conflict of interest is particularly acute for an artist whose work is politically orientated, and which articulates human violence and suffering.
The bipartite nature of this essay is intended to highlight both the contradictory nature of today’s art industry and the sorts of dilemma that a politically engaged artist living in both the artistic and the commercial worlds might have to face, in order to function within them. Taking as examples those of Salcedo’s works directly inspired by the 1985 assault on the Palace of Justice, I will investigate how the reception of her art in the us and Europe might be typical of the way in which the Western art world habitually consumes and appropriates works from the ‘Third World’. Shibboleth—Salcedo’s renowned ‘crack in the floor’ of the prestigious Turbine Hall at Tate Modern in 2007—further illuminates the ways in which ‘Third World’ artists can be accommodated and consumed within a predominantly Western cultural discourse. This is not, of course, to argue that Salcedo is typical: no Latin American artist has achieved what she has so far achieved in so short a time in such high-powered Western art institutions, public as well as commercial.footnote2 Nevertheless, her interaction with Western art institutions provides an illuminating example of how it is possible for an artist operating between two worlds to negotiate and successfully secure for herself a position of cultural prominence. The intricate networking and social-relationship mechanisms within the contemporary art world are not easily mapped; but it may be possible to sketch out some significant historical junctures at which certain key players or institutions have helped shape an artist’s career.
One of many ‘Third World’ artists who go to us or European centres of contemporary art for training, Salcedo completed her postgraduate studies in New York—an experience which not only provides graduates with opportunities for further professional development, but frequently also facilitates personal networking and access to Western art institutions in general. Having finished her Masters degree in sculpture at nyu in 1984, Salcedo returned to Colombia, and mainly exhibited in Bogotá for the next eight years.footnote3 Her début in a Western art institution came with the group show Currents 92: The Absent Body at the Institute of Contemporary Art in Boston in 1992. The following year Salcedo appeared in a group show at one of the foremost New York commercial art galleries, Brooke Alexander, and also featured in a special section of the 45th Venice Biennale—arguably the largest gathering of art specialists anywhere—which placed her work on the world art stage for the first time.