Touching pain. The matrixial experience of trauma in works by Doris Salcedo

Margarita Saoiia

Towards the end of the twentieth century, Jean Franco remarked that some of the most important grassroots movements in the previous decades were led by women who took over the public space, empowered by the roles that had been traditionally adjudicated to them by the patriarchal system, supposedly confining them to the private sphere (Franco 1992, 65). The expression las Madres de Plaza de Mayo (Mothers of the Plaza de Mayo) - the name adopted by the Argentinian women who took to the streets to confront abuses of power — should be a contradiction in terms. The ideas of motherhood that prevailed throughout the twentieth century confined mothers to the home and dissuaded them from participation in the public political debates of the plaza. However, in the aftermath of violent conflicts across Latin America, women have often been at the forefront of demanding justice for victims and presenting ways to confront oblivion with memory.

Political violence destroys the binary of public and domestic space in many significant ways. The violence inflicted on bodies, the fact that victims are often disappeared and therefore removed from the conventional rituals of mourning, and the disarticulation of families as a result of the death or displacement of their members all bring political violence into the homes and intimate relationships of victimised populations. For Jean Franco, therefore, the Mothers of Plaza de Mayo ‘not only gathered together in a public place but used their marginalised position to reclaim the polls. They created an Antigone space in which the rights (and rites) of kinship were given precedence over the discourse of the state’ (Franco 1992, 67). Franco refused to see this as essentialised ‘maternal thinking’ and emphasised the way in which the actions of these women transformed the understanding of gendered public and private spaces. Nonetheless, the infringement on the supposedly sacred, supposedly secure, supposedly feminine domestic space by political violence generated a ‘maternal’ response. I argue that it is possible to find ways to interpret our understanding of the social and material conditions that impact women and the bodily experience of motherhood by analysing works by women artists that bring to the fore the way the political and the personal intertwine.

In times of blatant violations of human rights, political activist culture in Latin America has often taken a direct approach to communicate an urgent message. Consequently, activists have regularly used genres such as photojournalism and testimony in order to denounce crimes against humanity to as wide an audience as possible. Cultural production that responds to political violence often manifests an indexical impulse to document atrocities.2 These cultural productions attempt to provide direct evidence of the facts. For example, the Madres de Plaza de Mayo famously carried greatly enhanced ID photos of their disappeared children to show that they had existed and that the state had recognised them as citizens, thus confronting the claim by the government that they were inventing ghosts.3 There are, however, other works and cultural products that manifest a sense of traumatic and maternal loss stemming from political violence that eschew direct indexical reference. We do not find direct evidence in them, nor testimonial representation of what happened, but they are able to convey the devastating effects of trauma. This article will examine three installations by Colombian sculptor Doris Salcedo - Untitled, Unland, and A Flor de Piel — as examples of political art in which there is a non-index-ical ‘maternal’ approach to the trauma of others. Emphasising a haptic sense in which the tactile experience informs sight, Salcedo communicates to the viewers the immense loss caused by violence and the need to mourn this loss without explicit representation of the violent acts themselves. Although my analysis focuses on these specific works, the aim of this chapter is to provide an understanding of the potential of non-indexical political art by women. I argue that Salcedo’s works constitute a form of witnessing that embodies Bracha Ettinger’s notion of the matrixial (2006), a primary form of compassion as a maternal experience.

The curator of the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago (MCA) retrospective of Doris Salcedo in 2014, Julie Rodrigues Widholm, explains that war, loss, and the personal and social scars of violent conflict are at the centre of Salcedo’s art. However, she also notes that Salcedo’s art diverted from the traditional testimonial approach to denunciation. Salcedo was part of a ‘central shift of the paradigm of political art by embracing ideas, objecthood, and materiality simultaneously — a substantial and early break from the autobiographical approaches of artists associated with 1980s multiculturalism’ (Rodrigues Widholm 2015, 17). Although Salcedo’s research involves collecting witnesses’ statements and personal testimonies from victims and their relatives, concrete details of the events are not apparent in her works. Without explicit descriptions of the horrors and the loss experienced by victims of violence, Salcedo’s sculptures transform ‘familiar materials into contemplative objects that transcend the particular details of violent incidents and prompt viewers to consider individual lives lost and families torn apart’ (Rodrigues Widholm 2015, 17). Colombian history, with its decades of internal war and approximately 220,000 violent deaths since the mid-twentieth century (Grupo de Memoria Historica 2013), permeates Salcedo’s work with the need to mourn. In an essay entitled ‘A Work in Mourning’, Salcedo herself explains that she hopes that her work will be a funeral prayer of sorts: ‘An aesthetic view of death reveals an ethical view of life, and it is for this reason that there is nothing more human than mourning’ (Salcedo 2015, 215).4 Mourning, the artist reminds us, is a way to give back sense and form to one’s loss.

Salcedo’s work straddles the emotional space between the violence suffered by victims and our ability to connect with their experiences: ‘This encounter is both a confrontation and an embrace...a threshold that simultaneously separates and unites these images’ (Salcedo 2015, 216). The threshold that Salcedo creates emerges from the materials she uses. In her works, textures and the materiality of form and surface evoke a haptic remembrance — a form of memory that is tactile and rooted in the material aspects of loss. While not exclusively feminine, her chosen topics and techniques with which to convey grief are associated with women’s experiences of intimacy and with the domestic realm. Combining perspectives from psychoanalysis, anthropology, and phenomenological art criticism, this chapter explores how the sense of touch within the maternal experience presents a particular understanding of the trauma of others.

The claim that there is a gendered perspective in these works draws from Bracha L. Ettinger’s concept of the matrixial:

The sphere where the woman-m/Other is not an other-Thing-as-absence is the matrixial sphere. Here the subject lives in a borderspace between not-yet-life and the feminine, where the encounter-Thing and the Thingevent have some border-accessivity. This sphere is modeled upon the feminine/prebirth intimate sharing in jouissance, trauma and phantasy.

(Ettinger 2000, 97)

In Ettinger’s theory, the matrix — the womb — is a concept for a ‘transforming borderspace of encounter’ (2006, 64). Ettinger maintains that the late intrauterine encounter ‘can serve as a model for a shareable dimension of subjectivity [...] without fusion and without rejection’ (2006, 65). In this encounter, which she calls ‘metramorphosis’, the I and the non-I inform each other and condition affects of compassion. What Ettinger proposes is a process of subjectivisation that can be an alternative to, or co-exist with, Oedipal understandings of subjectivity. While the Oedipal subject formation requires identification with the phallus and differentiation from the Other, matrixial subjectivity arises from primary experiences of connection to the Other in the womb. And it is this matrixial experience at the physical level that originates a metramorphosis:

The originary metramorphoses in the field ofjoint matrixial sensibility and affectivity are connected to oscillations of touch and pressure, fluctuations of motions and balance (kinesthesia), changing amplitude of voices and light -and -dark variations - diffuse, shared sensorial impressions that enable the construction of partial object-relations and their loss, and that subjectivize the partial subjects (partial I and partial others) as matrixial.

(Ettinger 2006, 66)

In emphasising touch that is not bound to penetration, Ettinger proposes subject formations that are beyond the phallus and castration, and therefore also present forms of maternal or female desire that are not defined by the phallic universe (2006, 67). In an Oedipal model of subjectivity, the threat of castration separates the subject from the mother, but that separation from the (m)other constitutes a wound, a castration in itself. For Ettinger, separation can be understood not only as castration, but also as reciprocal transformation: not a complete fusion with the other, but not complete exclusion either.

For Ettinger, the metramorphosis creates a ‘feminine/prenatal encounter -not fusion - that places any human becoming-subject-to-be, male or female, in relation with female bodily specificity and her encounters, trauma, jouissance, passion, phantasy, and desire’ (2006, 141). This ‘matrixial alliance’ creates a borderspace that generates an aesthetic field with ethical implications: ‘a non-I may become, beyond present-ability, an indirect witness to the trauma of the other (2006, 69, emphasis in original). Ettinger maintains that both male and female individuals who can yield to the fragile ‘positioning vis-à-vis their I, the Other, and the world’ could be in contact with the time and space of the matrixial sphere (2006, 143). In other words, the matrixial creates a zone where I and non-I (what others see as subject versus other) co-emerge in a potential transsubjectivity, and it is in this exchange with the (m)other that we can experience compassion.

Doris Salcedo’s pieces in Unland (Figure 11.1), Untitled (Figure 11.2), and/1 Flor de Piel (Figure 11.3) compel the viewer to understand visually the texture of objects that convey, in different ways, the loss and the trauma of others. Salcedo’s sculptures disarticulate the texture and structure of familiar objects by

Untitled. From Doris Salcedo retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. Photos by author

Figure 11.1 Untitled. From Doris Salcedo retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. Photos by author.

Pigtire 11.2 Untitled. From Doris Salcedo retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. Photos by author.

interweaving common items of furniture with hair and clothing, thus creating a disturbing effect that helps viewers understand the impossibility of mourning those who have been violently separated from their homes and their loved ones.

As previously noted, the commemoration of the disappeared in Latin America has often emphasised the visual through more direct and indexical

Untitled. From Doris Salcedo retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. Photos by author

Figure 11.3 Untitled. From Doris Salcedo retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago. Photos by author.

means, particularly with regards to the use of photography to denounce human rights abuses. Using diverse domestic objects in the sculptures, these works by Salcedo foreground a sense of touch in ways that reflect a feminine experience of material loss. Although Ettinger did not write about sculptures or use the term ‘haptic’ in formulating the ideas around the matrixial encounter and the concept of metramorphosis, she described matrixial paintings as spaces in which the visual abandons the appropriation of the object usually bestowed by the gaze, so that the artist is touched by the object. She sees the visual arts as a means to dissolve the borders of individual subjectivity through a ‘touching gaze that approaches [trauma] from within-outside, and makes us fragile via wit(h)nessing the trauma of the Other and of the world’ (Ettinger 2000, 98).

Salcedo emphasises touch in only some of her works. I claim that her techniques reveal a form of intimacy aimed to spark memories of physical contact with objects that stand for lost loved ones. However, Doris Salcedo’s career dwells at times in the ver}' openly monumental public sphere. Some of her most famous pieces involved taking up symbolic spaces of Bogotá to commemorate losses due to political violence. Sillas vacias del Palacio de Justicia, 6 y 7 de noviembre (2002) commemorated a 1985 attack where over 100 people including justices and magistrates were killed. The installation in Plaza de Bolivar, Bogotá, /Ircw« de duelo, from 2007, was created to mourn a congressman of Valle, who was kidnapped for five years and subsequently killed by guerrilla forces. Salcedo also defied the segregation of cultural institutions by cracking up the floor of Turbine Hall in London’s Tate Tate Museum with her piece Shibboleth, representing the experience of migration and racial hatred

Touching pain 199 as negative space.5 These bold and public interventions strike a very different chord from Salcedo’s tone in Untitled, Unland, and A Flor de Piel, which are smaller, more intimate, and more personable in comparison. I have chosen these works because they reveal a domestic and inherently feminine dynamic in the exploration of families affected by political violence.

When talking about the maternal, Julia Kristeva (1981) drew on Hegel’s distinction between Human Law - that of man, politics, and ethics - and Divine Law, related to women, death, and religion.6 For Kristeva, women were in charge of the laws of reproduction, those relegated to the nether world of political law. Kristeva seems at times to equate the feminine and the maternal, but her argument is compelling because women, historically, have taken the role of primary caregivers, even when they were not mothers themselves. Traditionally, they have been the ones who tend to others. Kristeva (1981, 31) emphasises the experiences of pregnancy and motherhood as a disruption of the self that posits women as being at the margins of symbolic language, but capable of accessing ‘the fragmentation, the drive, the unnamable’. Her argument attempts to deal with issues of self and Other in terms of a psychotic break:

Pregnancy seems to be experienced as the radical ordeal of the splitting of the subject: redoubling up of the body, separation and coexistence of the self and of an other, of nature and consciousness, of physiolog}' and speech. This fundamental challenge to identity is then accompanied by a fantasy of totality -narcissistic completeness - a sort of instituted, socialized, natural psychosis.

(Kristeva 1981, 31)

For Kristeva, once the child is bom, women have to struggle with the risk of selfannihilation in their love for another. Kristeva tries to articulate ways in which the self could co-exist with motherhood in ways that are, perhaps, utopian. Conversely, Ettinger’s concept of the matrixial allows for an understanding of the maternal experience of the other without restricting it to those who are actual, biological mothers, and without assuming this experience of the other as a psychotic split of the self. Ettinger (2006, 141) proposes that ‘the womb stands for fusional symbiosis and undifferentiation, which can emerge in culture only as psychosis’ and only in the conditions imposed by ‘the Name of the Father’. Unlike Kristeva’s semiotic, however, Ettinger’s matrixial can be accessed without a splitting of the self:'

I suggest that evocations and irruptions of feminine/prenatal encounters, and emergences of matrixial cross-scribed imprints, are not psychotic. They only become psychosis-like when they have no symbolic access whatsoever in a culture that takes them for non-sense. Not only are such cross-scriptions not psychotic, they are ground for thinking the enigma of the imprints of the world on the artist.

(Ettinger 2006, 142)

In the context of political violence, where many women survived the death and disappearance of their male loved ones and had to confront the law of politics to denounce the death of those they could not mourn, we can witness the indictment of the language of that law. The works of Salcedo that I examine, with their emphasis on the haptic, disrupt the syntax of symbolic representation, the logic of meaning, to reveal the scandal of violence and death. While Kristeva emphasised the threat of a psychotic break for the subject immersed in semiotic poetic language, Ettinger suggests that artists who access the matrixial time/space might be able to wit(h)ness the trauma of others. The predominance of sensorial experience, away from denotative language, in the work of these artists, brings to the fore a refusal of representation that in turn appeals to basic forms of cognition and memory. Ettinger sees sexual difference as a difference in ‘sensing-and-thinking apparatus’:

Female sexual bodily specificity allows for thinking primary co-affectivity. It supplies an apparatus of a sense-making [...]. The womb which is a female bodily specificity stands here for a sensing-and-thinking apparatus as well as for a psychic capacity for shareability that is based upon borderlinking to a female body.

(Ettinger 2000, 97)

This turn to the senses that eschews the symbolic also eludes psychotic nonsense. The senses allow access to a feminine way of thinking/wit(h)nessing the pain of others.

In a review article entitled Feminist Engagements with Matter, Myra J. Hird distinguishes between a traditional understanding of material culture in feminism, which was concerned with the ‘material living conditions’ of women, drawing attention to aspects of their daily experiences, and a newer approach devoted to ‘the affective physicality of human-nonhuman encounters and relations’ (2009, 329—330). For Hird, the focus of new materialism, or neomaterialism, is the engagement with matter as such. In my view, we need both: the understanding of the concrete, material experience in women’s lives, what Hird (2009, 329) calls ‘the mundane, repetitive, and tedious activities of daily life’, and of the complex interactions between culture and matter. Our daily interactions with objects, with matter itself, and with the material, corporeal aspects of other beings are inscribed in culture and habitus, and also in the physical, material condition of our existence. We need to understand how embodied experiences constitute our self and our understanding of others and of the world around us.

When cultural anthropologist Nadia Serematakis studies what she calls ‘the sensory experience of history’, she looks at ‘memory stored in specific everyday items that [...] create and sustain our relationship to the historical as a sensory dimension’ (1994, 3). She sees artefacts as depositories of sensor}' and perceptual experiences, surrogates for the human body. Our unconscious dealing with everyday objects imprints on our sensory memory.

One of the objects of Seremetakis’s study is embroidery, which she considers as a set of‘series and sequences that cohere into a visual, tactile story a form of writing which, spread on clothes, ornaments and names people and spaces, with and beyond the household’ (1994, 15). This imprint of domestic objects on our tactile memory, particularly in textiles, figures prominently in some of Salcedo’s work, but they have lost their coherent narrative. In Salcedo we see exquisite embroidered pieces of clothing stuck in furniture by plaster or cement. These artistic renderings of textiles appeal to haptic memory: even if we do not touch the sculptures we can see the texture, and vision summons tactile memories. Seeing the texture of the fabric we can imagine how it would feel to touch it and, thus, ‘remember’.

The touching of clothes retrieved from mass graves is part of the actual experience of the identification of forensic remains by relatives of the victims. José Pablo Baraybar, founder of the Peruvian Team of Forensic Anthropology' (EPAF), often witnesses how women identify the garments retrieved from mass graves by touching the fabric and recognising the style of the knitting or stitching of familiar items. He writes: ‘They caress their clothes, those they once made, washed and ironed. The threads whisper in their ears, the strands, the weave, the yarn, the stitches and the seams’ (Baraybar n.d.). It is not uncommon to see the use of clothes and textiles in works that evoke the disappeared. Salcedo uses textiles and weaving in different ways. According to Rodrigues Widholm, ‘In Salcedo’s hands, sewing, or puncturing, is a gesture of repair and healing as well as wounding’, and these materials join disparate entities in a moment of fragile coexistence’ (2015, 22).

Touching is a way of learning about the world. Our experience of things is often mediated by the sense of touch. Mark Paterson (2007, 2016) breaks down the ways in which touch trains the other senses about the material world: depth, distance, and texture are some of the main aspects he studies, but we could also talk about weight, volume, and mass as aspects of things we perceive through touch. Touch, as Paterson demonstrates, precedes and informs other forms of perception.

Salcedo’s pieces use the haptic — the relationship between sight and touch -in particular ways. Shape, texture, and form enter into play in conveying to the viewer how it would feel to touch the piece. This conjuring up of tactile sensations, I want to suggest, opens a threshold to what Ettinger calls the matrixial space, giving us access to primordial experiences of encounter, separation, and trauma. Art objects, according to Ettinger, are one of the ways in which we experience metramorphosis: ‘a passage-lane through which affected events, materials, and modes of becoming infiltrate and diversify onto the noncon-cious margins of the Symbolic through/by subsymbolic webs’ (Ettinger 2006, 143—144). She describes metramorphosis as ‘a co-naissance — knowledge of being-bom-together — which is not cognitive and does not enter direct representation’, and believes we carry traces of experiencing one another in the matrixial space and of experiencing others’ ‘traumatic Thing-events’ — a ‘non-cognitive mode of knowledge is embedded in such a witnessing-together: in withnessing’ (Ettinger 2006, 144). According to Ettinger, artistic work carries traces of experiences of the matrixial non-I as affective responses: ‘Apparitions from traumatic cross-inscription are known in awe, com-passion, horror, stupefaction, intuition, and languishing, even though what is “told” is not a story and what is “seen” illustrates nothing’ (2006, 144). She is pointing to the value of art that is not indexical but matrixial, to its capacity to convey the experiences of others, and to wit(h)ness trauma. The representation of textured surfaces in Salcedo presents qualities that we can align with what Ettinger calls the matrixial angle, ‘the borderspace of inside/outside as flip sides of subjectivity-as-encounter’, thus these works of art connect the gaze of the viewer affected by it with traces of trauma as ‘co-emerging memory’ (Ettinger 2006, 151—152). The haptic qualities of these works engage the viewers’ senses, eliciting affective responses related to primal tactile memories.

Salcedo’s sculptures alter the form and texture of everyday objects by disassembling and inserting different - sometimes incompatible — articles, such as human hair on a wooden table. Unland: The Orphan’s Tunic was inspired by interviews with children who had witnessed the murder of their parents. This unspeakable experience is echoed by the unsettling distortion of the shape and texture of a common dining room table. The brutality of the experience alienates us from the known reality of domestic space. The table is not a table anymore. Hair is not hair. The distinction between object and human being ceases to make sense. Furniture betrays its functionality and becomes potentially abhorrent.

In his chapter about sculpture, Peter Schwenger (2006, 51) reflects on how Heidegger’s phenomenology understood human engagement with things that were ‘ready-to-hand’ - ‘if it is “ready-to-hand,” it is a human hand for which it holds itself in readiness’. But, according to Schwenger, Heidegger understands that there is another way of looking at things beyond their pragmatic existence, beyond the nature of things that is revealed by their (human) use. For Schwenger, understanding the world, especially what is meant by that word in the condition described as ‘being-in-the-world’, is most clear when ‘the “ready-to-hand” becomes ««ready’, when a tool breaks, when an instrument is no longer an instrument but an obstacle (2006, 51). He reflects on rooms, houses, and equipment as elements that are supposed ‘to make the subject feel at home’, and how art ver}' often has the opposite effect: art breaks the familiar patterns of perception, giving us a glimpse of the unheimlich. Art can embody a sense of being at odds with the world. If objects normally create a sense of‘being at home in the world’, art, says Schwenger, can give us the realization that ‘one has been unhoused’ (2006, 69).

Doris Salcedo created the neologism Unland for the exhibit of the pieces she created after meeting with Colombian orphans. They had not only lost their parents, but they had witnessed the horrific violence that had taken their lives. In the word Unland, she therefore articulates the sense of displacement not only from the land — as many of these children had to be uprooted from their hometowns — but from family, from home and loving shelter, and from all that makes up a familiar world. It reflects the uncanny, the unheimlich. MCA curator Julie Rodrigues Widholm writes in the exhibit’s catalogue:

In Unland: the orphan’s tunic [...] parts of two tables, one covered in white silk and one made of brown wood, join together at the seam. An abundance of strands of human hair have been sewn through holes drilled into the surface of the tables. The work suggests that something broken has the potential to become healed through contact. Each table that is missing legs depends on another for its stability.

(Widholm 2015, 22)

The trauma of a world destroyed is present in the tables of Unland. But the explicit wounds also offer the possibility of healing. Rodrigues Widhold writes, ‘Although the transitions between materials in Salcedo’s work nearly always remain evident, the effort to connect, even via the most delicate of fabrics or hair, reveals meaning in the joining together of disparate entities in a moment of fragile coexistence’ (2015, 22). The Unland tables embody trauma in ways that reflect Ettinger’s metramorphoses: there is a matrixial understanding of pain in these things that have lost their ‘ready-to-hand’ qualities.

We can see something similar in Untitled: pieces of furniture such as dressers, chairs, and bed frames are stuffed with rough cement and delicate, embroidered garments, rendering their shape and original function unrecognisable. The disruption of form in Salcedo - the fact that she intervenes these objects, making impossible both the Gestalt psychology that normally helps us maintain stable perceptions of the world and their phenomenological ‘sense’, their pragmatic raison d'etre - is a projection of the abject grief caused by the violent assault on the domestic space.

One of Salcedo’s most remarkable pieces is called A Flor de Piel. She made it by sewing together thousands of rose petals to honour a nun who had been raped and killed. Salcedo declared: ‘A Flor de Piel started with the simple intention of making a flower offering to a victim of torture, in an attempt to perform the funerary ritual that was denied to her’ (Salcedo 2015, 216). The Spanish title does not translate well into English. A more literal translation would be akin to ‘on the flower of [her] skin’, but it can be translated as ‘wearing your heart on your sleeve’, meaning one’s feelings are right at the surface, raw and intense. Salcedo created it as a delicate shroud for the nun who had been tortured, raped, and killed, thereby confronting the challenge of approaching ‘the untouchable aspect of a wound’ (2015, 216). To create this piece she researched ways to preserve rose petals in a stage that is ‘neither dead nor alive’, and describes A Flor de Piel in the following terms:

I treated them so they (the petals) remain suspended between the animate and the inanimate [...]. Not quite an object, it stands removed from the world of objects, and in a way, what defines this piece is our gaze, our relationship with it. It is a thin, ephemeral shroud; it is an interface that allowed me to come near the broken bodies of torture.

(Salcedo 2015, 216)

A Flor de Piel is both flower and skin, body and wound, pain and the most delicate beauty, and probably the work of art that best embodies the matrixial space. It presents itself as the threshold between the image and that which we cannot touch, but can sense, and in this way allows an encounter with the extreme vulnerability of the body.

The art critics who have written reviews about Salcedo’s works such as Unland and Untitled, but also La Casa Viuda, all remark on the focus on the domestic space. Jill Bennett (2002), a scholar of experimental arts who specialises in the art of traumatic memory, sees in these works an engendering of grief connected to the expression of loss in women’s bodies (see also Cabello 2013). The house and the body appear as the domains where the social is articulated to feminine practices. Bennett follows Veena Das’s (1997, 81) notion that, traditionally, ‘the good death is defined by the bearing of witness on the part of women so that grief can move between the body and speech that can be publicly articulated’. But mourning laments cannot fulfil that role when dealing with a ‘bad death’ — death caused by events beyond the control of the living community or, worse, by the ‘willful action of others’ (Das 1997, 81).

Das was writing about the silence that followed the deaths caused by the Partition of India and the resultant impossibility of enacting regular rites of mourning for a traumatic event that included the abduction and rape of the women who would in other circumstances perform these rites. Nevertheless, the works by Salcedo similarly depict an embodiment of loss through domestic, everyday objects that somehow gives a material expression of grief that cannot be expressed by language. It is true that women have provided oral testimony of their horrific experiences of violence in Colombia throughout its many decades of internal war, and Salcedo herself often conducts interviews with victims in the communities she visits, but language, at times, seems incapable of conveying horror.

Talking about her interviews with women who had suffered violence during the Partition, Das ‘found a zone of silence around the event’ (1997, 84). Language was used in either a general and metaphoric way or to describe surrounding events (not naming, for example, their experiences of abduction and rape). While it is important to denounce hateful crimes in unmistakable terms, haptic art gives us a different kind of access to the suffering experienced by others. The materiality of the works of art that I examine in this chapter breaks up with the logic of the laws of language and even with a Gestalt, with a recognisable form. When the indexical seems insufficient, artists like Salcedo create in their work ways to access an understanding of trauma through the matrixial. I believe that the haptic qualities of these works of art are especially conducive to this experience.

In his study on the sense of touch, Mark Paterson (2007) explores the multidimensional ways that touch can be described as an aesthetic experience. The idea that art ‘touches us’ thus becomes more than a metaphor. Touching, Paterson reminds us, can be related to the original meaning that aesthetics had for the Greek: Aristotle saw aesthetics as the alteration of our sensory faculties. It was simultaneously perceiving, sensing, and feeling. Considered from that perspective, touching means feeling with our senses, but also affecting others or being affected. And Paterson finds that the aesthetic body can be experienced, from a physiological perspective, in many dimensions: ‘from the pictorial surface of painting (skin), the three-dimensional volumes of sculpture (flesh), and the opening out into space of installations and architecture (body)’ (2007, 81). The works of Salcedo distance themselves from the linguistic and symbolic realm and choose to touch us instead. Her approach reflects a more tactile, palpable, tangible experience of the pain of others.

< Prev   CONTENTS   Source   Next >