Artsy April: Materiality of Mourning


It's April (the third to be exact) and finally feeling like Spring with this post-snow storm heatwave! And though this past weekend had less than favorable weather conditions, the campus didn't slow down, nor did the traction of students and guests to the Harvard Art Museums and the Student Art Show skip a beat! In honor of that, the immense time I spend in HAM (not the meat, but the museum for short), and the fact that I'm realizing art, which are half of my studies, truly make me happy, I'm self-proclaiming a month long holiday: Artsy April! Let this be a month of eyes attuned to the aesthetic and an overall appreciation for anything artistic - including gloves found on the floor (I'm looking at you Bruno, @fallinginglove). 

This month, you'll see posts about current exhibits, student-artist-friends-extroardinaire, Instagram geniuses, and more! So let's inaugurate this initiative with an exhibition currently on display at HAM that is near and dear to me, for a counter intuitive reason:

I'm referring to the Doris Salcedo Exhibit The Materiality of Mourning. (3rd floor of HAM, check it out, check it out!)

I'm no stranger to this exhibit. Rather, I had actually seen it on display at the Perez Art Museum of Miami last summer, before it travelled up to Boston. I remember going to PAMM, expecting to see some brightly colored anything (typical of happy, Miami summertime), and being confronted with the ghostly muted tones of these works - an initial reaction given my love for color. As personal background, I visited this exhibit in Miami during the time in which I was deciding to study computer science or art history (before the combination of doing both struck me), and pitching to my parents why I thought art history would be the path for me. I remember coming home that day, kind of disappointed with what I had seen, and sitting down to talk to my parents to quasi "pitch" them my plan of study. 

Naturally, my parents asked about my day, and honed in on the fact that I didn't "like" what I had seen at the museum. They pointed out that I'm not going to "like" (what I define to be visually pleasing) all the art I encounter, but that shouldn't mean I should shy away from it. Rather, I should dive into why it affronts me, and learn more. I left Miami shortly thereafter, kind of defeated that maybe art history wasn't the way for me. (Important note: I'm a fan of wall text, I know it's controversial as in "should art speak for itself? Or does it really need an explanation?" But I find value in the words written to supplement the works, not substitute them, and realized I hadn't given the Salcedo exhibit enough opportunity to learn and read about it to understand and appreciate it).

Fast forward to Sophomore fall, I'm about to declare my joint plan of study, I start working at the Harvard Art Museums as a member of the Student Board, and I'm told The Materiality of Mourning will be exhibited at our very own museum! I thought, "This is my chance to prove to myself that I can 'like' something that I don't initially gravitate towards, merely if it be only for the thought process and artistic merit." 

This is when I was presented with the opportunity for a pre-opening night walk through with the curator, Mary Schneider Enriquez, a personal friend of Doris Salcedo. I cannot even begin to explain how my eyes opened, my heart opened, and my entire being accepted this exhibit - and I knew, that this was the right path of study for me. 

With all of that personal significance aside, the exhibit itself is quite incredible. It's incredible in a very hallowing and moving way, given that it deals with death, violence, and quite literally, the materials of mourning. As a viewer, you're presented with four major works: toppled over armoires physically conjoined with tables, mutilated chairs, a fabric of sutured roses, and a series of three vapor-like "shirts". Each work calls attention to violence, in Colombia and Detroit for example, by comparing mutilation of common, often household objects, to the aggression against people. 

Untitled 2008 displays two items of familiar furniture, a table and an armoire, and forces them together in an unnaturally chilling way. The table being just long enough to fit a body, the cement filled in like a grave. 

Thou-less presents a series of chairs that are crushed, reformed, and otherwise butchered. The chairs evoke spaces in which bodies once occupied - which I conceptually understood, but felt in practice now every time I leave a classroom, and an imprint of the student body is left on the disarray of chairs. 

A Flor de Piel is probably the most intricate, materially, as it verbally translates to skin of flowers, and it evokes the softness of a bedroom sheet yet with the colors of blood and death, physically made from dyed roses sewn together with suture thread - like the sealing of wounds. Here, Salcedo points out that violence can even occur in the sanctuary of your own room.

Disremembered is a series of shirts that are made of nickel dyed needles and silk thread. The overall form is meant to signify the casual act of hanging up a shirt or jacket at the end of the day when you get home. It also alludes to the presence of a person's body that would normally be in the shirt, but now all that's left is a hollow artifact of the person who is gone. The needles elicit the "pins and needles" feeling that crawls on the skin of those mourning. 

At the risk of not doing the exhibit enough justice with my cursory explanations (nor seeking to turn this blogpost into a robust paper for one of my art history courses), I felt that this portion of the exhibit catalogue succinctly encapsulated the works:

In Disremembered, Salcedo continues her pursuit of a materiality that is all but fleeting. Like a Flor de Piel, the sculptures in this series seem to be just on the verge of disappearing, although these works are not constructed of organic materials. Each is a seemingly fragile, specter-like form of human scale that appears to float against the wall. 

Moral of the story, please check out this exhibit for yourself! I only hope you take more time than I originally did to truly fathom the brilliance underpinning these works, and let yourself feel the desperation and sense of mourning that is evoked. 

Other moral of the story, taking this month to post about different arts will hopefully bring to all of your attentions the wonderful, artistic opportunities that surround us daily. So go forth, my friends, and find your art! I suggest stopping at Jenny's Cafe in HAM on your way ;)

Xx, Maia & the first installation of #artsyApril