Of What One Cannot Speak: Doris Salcedo’s Political Art

Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2011

back cover text:
Doris Salcedo, a Colombian-born artist, addresses the politics of memory and forgetting in work that embraces fraught situations in dangerous places. Noted critic and theorist Mieke Bal narrates between the disciplines of contemporary culture in order to boldly reimagine the role of the visual arts. Both women are pathbreaking figures, globally renowned and widely respected. Doris Salcedo, meet Mieke Bal.

In Of What One Cannot Speak, Bal leads us into intimate encounters with Salcedo’s art, encouraging us to consider each work as a “theoretical object” that invites—and demands—certain kinds of considerations about history, death, erasure, and grief. Bal ranges widely through Salcedo’s work, from Salcedo’s Atrabiliarios series—in which the artist uses worn shoes to retrace los desaparecidos (“the disappeared”) from nations like Argentina, Chile, and Colombia—to Shibboleth, Salcedo’s once-in-a-lifetime commission by the Tate Modern, for which she created a rupture, as if by earthquake, that stretched the length of the museum hall’s concrete floor. In each instance, Salcedo’s installations speak for themselves, utilizing household items, human bones, and common domestic architecture to explore the silent spaces between violence, trauma, and identity. Yet Bal draws out even deeper responses to the work, questioning the nature of political art altogether and introducing concepts of metaphor, time, and space in order to contend with Salcedo’s powerful sculptures and installations.

An unforgettable fusion of art and essay, Of What One Cannot Speak takes us to the very core of events we are capable of remembering—yet still uncomfortably cannot speak aloud.



In 2014, the Spanish translation of this book appeared, in Bogotá, the city where the artist Doris Salcedo lives and works. The book looks exactly like the American book, but then, inside there is an image of a new work that did not yet exist when the English version went to press. And barely had I been able to add a second epilogue devoted to this impressive A flor de piel when the artist showed me her current work-in-progress, Palimpsest. Do I dare say it? Even more impressive.

In view, also, of the exhibition of Madame B (Colombia) in Medellín, my first visit to Colombia was in the books. For this double occasion, the curator of the exhibition and director of the book translation and publication, Lucrecia Piedrahita Orrego, a tireless and creative organizer of events, had put together book launches in Bogotá and Medellín, and mustered enormous media interest. No wonder; she had gone out of her way to bring the book to attention. This included an “expografía” as she called it, an exhibition of the book - pages from it, blown-up photographs of the art works, and old printing machines from the 1950s, to mark the importance of printing for the divulging of art. Bravo, Lucrecia - and her two expert assistants, Julián Oquendo and Julio Cabrero Cano, architects. Our petname for them was “the julis” - lovely persons, and great at the job.

The photos here give a sense of the expografía.

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book exhibition of the Spanish edition in Bogotá, Colombia