Doris Salcedo’s “Plegaria Muda”

“Plegaria Muda”:  An Anti-Memorial for Young People Who Experience Daily Violence and Trauma

        The teacher pulls the blinds down, covers the small glass window on the door with black paper, and twists the lock shut. The lights are off. The class stands together against the corner of the room closest to the door. One student wonders whether black paper would really fool a shooter into thinking a classroom is empty. Another is secretly relieved to be at the centre of a huddle of bodies. But this is only a drill, a regularity in North America since the Columbine shooting in 1999, and it will be over soon. The same cannot be said for youth who experience regular violence in their country or community.

        In her work, “Plegaria Muda,” which loosely translates as ‘silent prayer’, Doris Salcedo brings together gang violence experienced by youth in Los Angeles, and violence experienced by youth living in the rural parts of Colombia. Whether the victim is a student crouched in a classroom, or a teenager hiding from the Colombian army, the sound of a shooter’s footsteps leaves them powerless to do anything but say a silent prayer. These experiences result in trauma and loss that may look the same to an outsider. The number of victims in each scenario is overwhelming. Salcedo confronts the desensitization that occurs when there are so many victims by creating an anti-memorial.

Traditional memorialization is not empathetic because it converts victims into numbers and representations of a circumstance that is over, a move that leads society to forget the individuality of those who have suffered. When a viewer has not actually experienced the circumstances being represented, memorials become distant and easy to walk away from. But it is much harder to turn away from a human story. Salcedo’s work mourns these victims, but it also creates a deep discomfort with the idea of collectivising their experiences, insisting that we remember each of them singularly, and dig for the humanity in familiar images of tragedy.

        “Plegaria Muda” is made up of a series of hand-crafted tables, one resting normally on the ground with the other placed on top on its back. Between the two tables, there is a layer of soil with seeds of grass planted, which grow up through the wood over time. The immediate impression is that of a graveyard, with coffins buried in a transparent ground. The viewer cannot step over the graves but must walk half-sunk among them. However, there is another image that gets screened onto the viewer’s imagination as she walks through the space. Each sculpture also looks like one desk piled on top of another for a long school break. The viewer can either imagine herself in a graveyard or an empty classroom. Like in her other works, Salcedo does not pair the tables with chairs. The table is then stripped of its function, and the absence of the chair creates a question of what else is missing. Where is the student who sits there? While desks bring youth, education and potential to mind, coffins connote the end of those potentials. In the imaginary space between the desk and the coffin, there is the nameless, faceless child buried in the soil.  

The number of graves is overwhelming, and as the viewer meanders through them, the path becomes less clear and the journey across the room more convoluted. At first the coffins may seem like identical replicas representing a massive tragedy, and in one sense they are meant to portray a magnitude of suffering. However, the desks are not identical. Each one is hand-crafted, and while they look similar they are actually in various shades of colour mixed by Salcedo’s team. In the face of senseless violence, it is easy to become desensitized to individual suffering, but her work insists on maintaining nuance.

The “Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe,” in Berlin uses coffin imagery to overwhelm the viewer, and may seem similar to Salcedo’s work. It is also a kind of maze that the viewer is plunged into and must navigate. Upon entrance, the coffins begin waist-high, and from the outside it seems that they are all this height. Then they rise as you walk towards the middle of the work, creating the feeling that you are sinking. Each grave in the memorial is the same, aside from their differing heights. Once the viewer understands the message of the work, it is easy to walk away because there is not much else to look at, there is no individual detail on any of the graves, and the story that is being told creates a single sweeping narrative. There is no human story, no nuance. The victims are converted into their circumstance, one that the viewer understands fleetingly while she sinks, and then sets aside.

The Berlin Memorial tries to put the viewer into the metaphorical state of the victim, sinking into inescapable sky-less entrapment. But putting the viewer “into the victim’s shoes” is not how empathy works. Salcedo’s work comparatively urges you to stop and look at the differences and details, reminding you that each coffin contains an individual. The initial image that her work creates is familiar — you are in a graveyard. Once you are drawn in and comfortable, the differences between each table become apparent. It is much harder to walk away from a piece that challenges you to discover the hints of humanity in an otherwise desensitizing experience. To pay attention is a true act of empathy, and it’s one that her work demands in juxtaposition with the traditional memorial.

        “Plegaria Muda” was born out of Salcedo’s realization that the victims and perpetrators of gang violence share socioeconomic circumstances that result in a lack of empathy from broader society: the victims are faceless gangsters, who bring violence onto themselves. In an interview with art historian Tim Marlowe, Salcedo states, “These young men, before they were physically killed they were socially killed because they were living in marginal areas… and we don’t mourn them because we think they are gangsters … We ought to mourn every single life.” Salcedo also visited mass graves in Colombia and interviewed the mothers of young men who had gone missing. By putting these two tragedies in conversation, the work points out their similarities and problematizes the ways we think about the “other” in relation to violence. Youth in parts of L.A. have been deemed unworthy of help or empathy; they are imagined as an island apart from the America that society pays attention to. Similarly, Colombian youth are marginalized because they come from a country that has a history of violence so people have become numb to their tragedies. The work accuses society of thinking of them as incapable or inherently violent, and refusing to pay attention to their potential.

        The grass that grows through each piece has a double meaning similar to the tables themselves. It reminds the viewer of tenacity and strength. Salcedo calls each blade a miracle. It seems so unlikely that a delicate plant could find its way to the light through such heavy and unyielding material. Yet Salcedo points out that it also resembles the grass that grows around the walls of a ruin. While disenfranchised groups of people survive trauma every day and somehow continue living, that does not negate the loss of those who do not survive. North American youth in affluent neighbourhoods may be bored or made nervous by lock-down drills. Violence does not often creep into their backyards, but society empathizes with their fear. The potential in young people who are less privileged is destroyed every day, and Salcedo’s work demands at the very least, a restless discomfort with that fact.

“Doris Salcedo: Plegaria Muda (Silent Prayer) 2016” Nasher Sculpture Center, 2016. (Youtube)
“Doris Salcedo on A Flor de Peil and Plegaria Muda,”, 2012.
“Plegaria Muda,”Grynsztein, Madeline and Rodrigues-Widholm Julie. Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, 2015.
“Doris Salcedo, Plegaria Muda, 2008-10,” Brinson, Katherine., 2015
“Doris Salcedo: Plegaria Muda at MUAC,” Vernissage TV, 2011. (Youtube)