¿Si hablamos de un “complejo del mundo del arte”, cuál es el lugar que el arte contemporáneo producido desde Latinoamérica ocupa dentro de este?

Mi comprensión de un “complejo del mundo del arte” parte de la noción de visualidad de Nicholas Mirzoeff. Este concepto se emplea aquí como una herramienta para problematizar separaciones estéticas, materiales, procesales y simbólicas; divisiones que filtran lo que es permitido visibilidad e importancia dentro de espacios / geografías artísticas hegemónicas. Utilizo esta herramienta conceptual para analizar la obra de arte Sumando Ausencias de Doris Salcedo y las controversias que generó, principalmente retratadas aquí a través de una serie de respuestas públicas, mediáticas —en gran medida publicadas por [esferapública]— y académicas.

The Art World Complex

A Reading of the Controversies of Doris Salcedo’s Sumando Ausencias

What aspects of a work of art tend to become visible in a diversity of public spheres? What is often not considered when responding to a work of art? What kind of readings have challenged and investigated the material and symbolic meaning of what is often understood as the enabling structures of a work of art? How might these questions complicate recent statements attempting to generate a turn towards politics of resistance and agency, focusing on opacity?

In other words, ¿is there such a thing as an “art world complex”?

My understanding of an “art world complex” departs from Nicholas Mirzoeff’s notion of visuality. The concept of an “art world complex” is used here as a tool to problematize aesthetic, material, procedural, and symbolic separations; divisions that filtrate what is allowed to become visible, to matter, in more of hegemonic artistic spaces/geographies. In exploring the questions above, I use as an object of study the artwork Sumando Ausencias by Doris Salcedo and the controversies it generated – mainly portrayed here through a series of public, media and academic, responses.

Doris Salcedo coordinando los voluntarios que apoyaron Sumando Ausencias en la Plaza de Bolívar. Foto: Revista Semana

In October of 2016, the Colombian artist Doris Salcedo installed her controversial piece Sumando Ausencias (Adding up Absences), with the support from the museum of the Universidad Nacional, at Bolívar Square, Bogotá – the main square of the capital, surrounded by the Palace of Justice, the National Capitol, the primary cathedral and the Liévano Palace. This piece was executed in reaction to the rejection, by a 0.4% difference of votes, of the peace treaty that the Colombian government had been negotiating with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC). This peace treaty intended to put an end to the armed conflict of more than fifty years old which, although it was initially based in Bogotá, it increasingly became rural. Sumando Ausencias consisted in the collaborative action –with the participation of people from different backgrounds- of sowing together two thousand rectangular pieces of white fabric. In each rectangle, a different name of one of the numerous displaced, disappeared, and killed victims of the civil war was inscribed with ashes. The white mantle slowly grew from the center, surrounding the statue of Simon Bolívar, to cover the entirety of the public plaza.

I. Judith Butler is a North American scholar better known for her theorization of the performativity of gender. In more recent years, she has become a significant reference on the topic of the politics of public mourning; thinking through bodies that are perceived as grief-worthy versus undeserving of grief. In relation to this body of work, in March of 2017, Butler was invited to give the inaugural talk for the symposium “Topography of Loss” in dedication to Doris Salcedo’s work and her newly opened exhibition at the Harvard Museum.

In her talk, though Butler acknowledges to some extent the controversies around Sumando Ausencias, her response appears to critically align with a general positive recognition from international artistic press[1]. Common to these supportive assertions of Salcedo’s installation and overall merit, is the narrative that allows and prevails in such responses. In this way, the short narrative initially highlighted in this essay – the collective gesture of sowing together, the written names of the victims, and the public nature of the piece- has greatly operated as the mainstream framework. These elements not only have become the center of attention and perceived as worth of aesthetic value, and therefore analysis, but are precisely defined as what makes this piece a work of art.

Judith Butler considerably expands upon the symbolic potential of Sumando Ausencias. The scholar elaborates on the restorative action of collectively sowing together on the floor, pointing towards what she calls a “solidarity on the ground”. Her reading proceeds with the interpretation of each panels as a way to materially stand “for the people who literally can’t stand there.” In engaging with one of the controversial aspects of this piece, Butler shifts attention to the action of naming. She recognizes the decontextualized character of the action of just naming (“no context, no history”, the scholar states). However, Butler understands it as precisely intending to reflect the “limiting and fading character of representation itself”; what she calls the “fragility of memory”. In further complicating her reading, some of the aesthetic aspects that characterize the names are foregrounded. The scholar mentions for example how some of the names are fading or partially legible, aspects which she perceives as precisely emphasizing the “failure to remember and to mourn”. While being asked by a member of the public about the clean, white, and delicate aesthetic of Salcedo, Butler differently argues that the relation between dirt and delicacy in Salcedo’s work is terrifying; operating precisely in a zone of indeterminacy.

In this way, one of the conclusions that Butler arrives at is at the perception of this piece as an evanescent one. In elaborating upon this evanescent character, she further states “Every act of making visible is hunted by what can no longer appear or indeed by lives who living and dying did not register at the level of appearance. When making it all visible becomes the answer, our redemptive potential is invested in the field of vision.” Following this line of thought, the scholar emphatically warns us “We may think greater visibility is the ethical and political answer to those histories of atrocious loss that leave the dead nameless, but how is nameless to be presented as part of the contemporary horizon of obliteration and persistence?” [Emphasis added] Salcedo’s practice, including her piece Sumando Ausencias, comes to operate, in Butler’s arguments in this symposium, as a significant aesthetic response that complexly exposes the limitations of the field of visibility while exploring the ephemeral.

As one example among many other, the Viennese art historian and critic Tom Holert – in reflection upon diverse meanings that deliberate acts of turning down the lights in major cities have taken-, concludes his essay “Blackout City” with a similar provocation,

But instead of merely continuing to ask for more transparency, accountability, and disclosure, to the effect that transparency has become one of the more vacuous values around, the various modalities of darkness should be renegotiated with an eye towards those common futures when light will not only have become scarce or dangerous, but simply less desirable.”[2]

Peggy Phelan’s Unmarked: The Politics of Performance, is another important example of scholarly thought concerned with political agency drawing upon what she calls “aesthetics of the unmarked”, precisely referring to aesthetics that do not register on a material and visible realm.[3] While importantly different in character and in their choice of objects of analysis, these texts are concerned with the potentialities of political aesthetic practices that explore invisibility, impermanence, darkness, and their various shades, in the face of political violence and death.

II. Many other perspectives published and shared on the internet, which achieved considerably less attention, greatly contest not only Butler’s understanding of Salcedo’s work but the discussions upon visibility/invisibility that underlie the scholar’s discourse.

In continuing exploring questions regarding visuality, it is worth bringing about Hyperallergic’s quotation of Salcedo and their reflection upon it:

“I don’t believe that the reproduction of an image can stop violence. I don’t think that art is capable of that…In art you can’t talk about impact. And even less about social impact; and absolutely nothing about political impact at all… What art can do is to create an emotional bond that could transmit, to some extent, the experience of the victim.”

It is true that this type of silent mediation with and through art exists, even if it’s something of a rarity nowadays, but it’s impossible to make a gesture on such a scale as “Sumando Ausencias” and not expect from the public a highly politicized reading, especially during such a sensitive time.[4]

In contrast to Sumando Ausencias’s evanescent character perceived by Butler, an unmistakable sense of materiality and spatial presence characterizing this piece is foregrounded in this statement. In paying attention to this intrinsic materiality, a shift in the narrative underlying this work necessarily occurs, foregrounding a series of events and structural aspects that were required in order for the piece to take place.

On a YouTube video titled “Doris Salcedo y el Vampirismo Artístico” (“Doris Salcedo and the Artistic Vampirism”), a single man manifests against Doris Salcedo’s installation at the plaza Bolivar. In this brief recording, the man narrates that in order for this piece to happen, the people that utilize the plaza on an everyday basis, including street vendors, were required to leave. Furthermore, a “peace camp” had been established at the plaza about a week before – two days after the plebiscite results were informed- the artistic installation took place.[5] Here, more than hundred fifty students, afro and indigenous populations, the elderly, peasants and more, although were equally protesting against the plebiscite’s results, they as well had to leave the plaza in order for Salcedo to realize her piece.

An article published on [esferapública] – one of the few presses that dedicate most attention to the taking up space of the piece and its implications- written by Leonardo Párraga, one of the members of this “peace camp”, unearths the processes that were necessary in order for Salcedo’s piece to be realized. Two days before the installation of the piece, a meeting took place. Participants of this meeting were Doris Salcedo, a columnist of the Semana, the director of the Cultural Patrimony of the Universidad Nacional, the adviser of the Alto Comisionado para La Paz office, and five members of the peace camp. The writer states that though Salcedo was open to listen, her concept of using Bolivar Square appeared non-negotiable. Though various proposals were presented in order to develop “emotional bonds” and political collaboration between both projects, Salcedo remained firmed. Ultimately, the members of the peace camp voluntarily moved in front of the Palace of Justice in order for both projects to come about.[6]

A second video published on YouTube titled “¿Por qué participó en la obra Sumando Ausencias, de Doris Salcedo?” (“Why did you participated in the piece Sumando Ausencias, by Doris Salcedo?”) brings our attention to other aspects of the piece not yet elaborated upon. An interviewee mentions a chain which was installed around the piece, preventing people from crossing over and spontaneously participating. She further states that this chain reproduced the mechanics of a white cube, creating an inside and an outside. Moreover, because of the whiteness and cleanness of the fabrics, participants were required to take their shoes off and have their hands clean, excluding from participation those who were dirty and/or did not have the conditions to clean themselves; particularly excluding, as the interviewee states, the people that most immediately may be in need of this kind of collective action of mourning.[7]

Other aspects emphasized through these alternative narratives are for instance: through videos and pictures of the installation, a considerable percentage of the participants seem to be young middle-class university students. It is additionally stated in the previously mentioned videos, as well as in Hyperallergic, that in order to participate, a degree of skill was required. This can be observed through close up pictures of the installation where the sowing seems rather uniform. In dedicating attention to the partially fading names, they are however all written in the middle of each piece of fabric, in capital letters and with the same font (something similar to Arial computer font), appearing standardized and controlled. Moreover, a recent article published in [esferapública], written by Elkin Rubiano, underlines how, not only in the work concerning this essay, but in Salcedo’s general practice, there is a continuous lack of acknowledgement of the communities holding and embracing the lives of what Salcedo refers as victims. Far from being isolated victims, their families and communities are very much resisting, looking for strategies of political agency, and dedicating time to their mourning, while collectively elaborating aesthetic symbolic actions for emotional strength.[8]

‘Sumando Ausencias’ Doris Salcedo. Foto: Sara Malagón. Revista Semana

My specific concern appears here in the contrast between these two kinds of narratives. It is relevant to say that these responses do not operate in opposition to each other, but the divergent elements of the piece which both reactions differently concentrate upon, is a call for reflecting on ways in which contemporary artistic production and scholarship comes to be implicated in the complexes of visuality. It becomes equally important to highlight that there are diverse efforts to negotiate and make sense of a multiplicity of contrasting responses, such as the previously cited article, by Elkin Rubiano. Nonetheless, when drawing upon the tools of visuality utilized in order to render bodies worthless, residual, it is essential to further push self-reflectiveness and question our own entanglement as scholars, artists, curators, critics, etc. with the structures of authority and power.

Nicholas Mirzoeff’s notion of visuality can help us unpack the disparate responses towards Sumando Ausencias. Mirzoeff’s concept of visuality can be understood as a complex of authority that utilizes classifying, separating, and aestheticizing as procedural means for consolidating a unity between power, authority and control. In the varied specific complexes of visuality that have emerged through time, such as the plantation and the imperial complex, visibility and invisibility have closely operated in relation, working hand in hand rather than in opposition to one another.[9] The scholar Macarena Gómez-Barris, for instance, observes in her research, regarding extractive zones in South America, that “in contrast to Glissant’s definition of opacity, in which difference proliferates in a positive form, this oblique apparatus of extractivism renders invisible the activities of the corporate state”.[10] While habitants, greatly rural indigenous and afro populations, are rendered invisible, an extractive view of those areas is made possible, therefore facilitating capitalist expansion.

Differently to Holert’s elaboration of the future, Gómez-Barris’s perceives that ““the paradigm of no-future” has already taken place” in these zones.[11] In this way, her thinking prevents us from forgetting the ways in which invisibility and darkness have also been greatly utilized as authoritarian and violent means for power. It is worth bringing here a section from the editorial introduction of “Politics of Shine”, E-Flux Journal #61, which elaborates upon the double nature of shine and light, “Shine and luster tend to block the view of things, while at the same time inviting fetishistic adherence. The architectures of finance and global management pretend transparency while offering glistening opacity.”[12] This statement may encourage us to not only investigate the limitations and potentialities of visibility/invisibility, but to elaborate on how they necessarily enable one another while also drawing from the fields of sound, language, spatial distribution, etc.; generating “a matrix of symbolic, physical, and representational violence”[13].

In bringing this reflection back to Salcedo’s piece, Mirzoeff’s model of visuality, inspired on Chakrabarty’s dual model of history, is particularly helpful. In Mirzoeff’s model, Visuality 1 appears as “the narrative that concentrates on the formation of a coherent and intelligible picture of modernity…”[14] In contrast, Visuality 2 is “that picturing of the self or collective that exceeds or proceeds that subjugation to centralized authority”.[15] My study of Sumando Ausencias’s disparate responses depart from Mirzoeff’s structure.

Responses 1 in this essay is represented by Butler’s reading of Salcedo’s piece. Responses 2 are represented by the reactions highlighted from the YouTube videos and [esferapública], greatly shared by local artists and activists. Though Butler’s reading is clearly complex and challenging, opening space for ambiguities and questions, her narrative considerably concentrates on aspects of the piece which were preconceived by Salcedo; an authorized and coherent artistic narrative, further consolidated by mainstream and international press – to recapitulate again: the collective action of sowing together, the written names of the victims, and the public and collaborative nature of the piece. However, as Responses 2 demonstrate in this essay, there are components of this piece – the chain surrounding the work, the displacement of the “peace camp”, the exclusion created from the asking of people to be clean and to take their shoes off, the rather controlled, pristine and overall standardized aesthetic of the piece, and we could continue adding in here for instance, the contrast in press access granted, the media discussions and arguments it generated as well as the logistical meetings that took place before the piece was ensemble- that although they do not pertain to a declared narrative, they nonetheless were a part of the piece; elements with symbolic, aesthetic, as well as material effects.

The components highlighted in Responses 2, while exceeding the piece, they are simultaneously rendered invisible by Responses 1. At best, if Responses 2 are acknowledged to some extent, they are justified as either necessary for the piece to take place or as Hyperallergic’s article rephrases from José Roca, the curator of Latin American art at the Tate, with a moderate and hopeful tone, “As Roca mentions elsewhere, perhaps some things could have been done differently in the context of Salcedo’s intervention… “It doesn’t mean that it is not important to make the gesture now.” Probably it is now when it is even more urgent to do.”[16] Though I agree with the importance of looking forward, while also recognizing that these actions are learning process themselves, I find essential to highlight and elaborate upon an active sense of artistic ethical responsibility. In the case of Salcedo’s piece, the ethical compromises are too high and in a way, reproduce the very aggressions this piece seems to manifest against. In this way, it appears that artistic creation and responses from this “within” (an art world, understanding it as the center which concentrates the resources and means for artistic legitimacy) require strategies and processes that attempt to question and reconcile what is permitted to be a part of an official artistic narrative, to become visible and to matter, in contrast to what is understood as overflowing it or the structures underneath; precisely addressing this line between an inside and outside[17].

Notwithstanding the relevance of Butler’s research exploring the potentialities of the ephemeral, it is equally urgent to complement this endeavor with actions such as Gómez-Barris’s search for “strategies that inverse, reverse and stretch the gaze, elongating time and lingering in third spaces”[18]and Mirzoeff’s claim for the right to look; therefore, returning to the question of who’s gaze and who’s means; citing Mirzoeff’s insight on the concept of ‘countervisuality’,

“A dispute over what is visible as an element of a situation, over which visible elements belong to what is common, over the capacity of subjects to designate this common and argue for it”.[19]

In returning to the concept of an “art world complex”, it becomes highly relevant to pay attention to the forces that encourage us to consider and prioritize certain aspects of a work of art over others while also increasing the awareness of the possible implications of these choices. An ethics of artistic making and reading is proposed in this essay that has as its main goal to motivate us to aesthetically, symbolically, emotionally, materially and politically engage with elements that most commonly are disregarded in official artistic narratives in addition to questioning precisely who has the agency to validate such discourses and what are the required means to do so.


Sofia Villena Araya


Akkermans, Ari. “A Divided Reception for Doris Salcedo’s Memorial in Bogotá.” Hyperallergic, 2016. https://hyperallergic.com/331486/a-divided-reception-for-doris-salcedos-memorial-in-bogota/

Butler, Judith. “Shadows of the Absent Body,” YouTube video, 1:40:48, posted by Harvard Art Museum, March 2, 2017, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9o9_ZP2Z7aI&t=4093s

“Doris Salcedo y el Vampirismo Artístico,” YouTube video, 15:25, posted by “Liberatorio Arte Contemporáneo,” July 12, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iHKe3onwclE&t=786s

Gómez-Barris, Macarena. The Extractive Zone: Social Ecologies and Decolonial Perspectives. Durham: Duke University Press, 2017.

Holert, Tom. “Blackout City.” E-flux Journal 56th Venice Biennale (2015). http://supercommunity.e-flux.com/authors/tom-holert/

Holert, T., Aranda, J. Wood, K.B., and Vidokle, A. “Editorial – “Politics of Shine.”” E-Flux, Journal #61 (2015). http://www.e-flux.com/journal/61/60985/editorial-politics-of-shine/

Mirzoeff, Nicholas. The Right to Look: A Counterhistory of Visuality. Durham: Duke University Press, 2011.

Phelan, Peggy. Unmarked: The Politics of Performance. London and New York: Routledge, 1993.

Párraga, Leonardo. “Sumando ausencias y multiplicando exclusión.” [esferapública], 2016. http://esferapublica.org/nfblog/sumando-ausencias-y-multiplicando-exclusion/

“¿Por qué participó en la obra Sumando Ausencias de Doris Salcedo?” YouTube video, 2:58, posted by “Revista Diners,” October 13, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ez-T0m1JZ9o

Rubiano, Elkin. “Hacia una etnografía digital del arte contemporáneo: Sumando ausencias de Doris Salcedo.” [esferapública], 2017. http://esferapublica.org/nfblog/hacia-una-etnografia-digital-del-arte-contemporaneo-sumando-ausencias-doris-salcedo/

Salcedo, Doris. Sumando Ausencias. Bogotá. 2016.


[1]  It is important to highlight that major international press had considerably more access to the piece while local press had limited access – see article published on October 19th of 2016 in Hyperallergic: “A Divided Reception for Doris Salcedo’s Memorial in Bogotá” by Ari Akkermans.

[2] Holert, Tom. “Blackout City.” E-Flux Journal 56th Venice Biennale (2015). http://supercommunity.e-flux.com/authors/tom-holert/

[3] Phelan, Peggy. Unmarked: The Politics of Performance. London and New York: Routledge, 1993.

[4]  Akkermans, Ari. “A Divided Reception for Doris Salcedo’s Memorial in Bogotá.” Hyperallergic, 2016. https://hyperallergic.com/331486/a-divided-reception-for-doris-salcedos-memorial-in-bogota/

[5] “Doris Salcedo y el Vampirismo Artístico,” YouTube video, 15:25, posted by “Liberatorio Arte Contemporáneo,” July 12, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iHKe3onwclE&t=786s

[6] Párraga, Leonardo. “Sumando ausencias y multiplicando exclusión.” [esferapública], 2016. http://esferapublica.org/nfblog/sumando-ausencias-y-multiplicando-exclusion/

[7] “¿Por qué participó en la obra Sumando Ausencias de Doris Salcedo?” YouTube video, 2:58, posted by “Revista Diners,” October 13, 2016, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ez-T0m1JZ9o

[8] Rubiano, Elkin. “Hacia una etnografía digital del arte contemporáneo: Sumando ausencias de Doris Salcedo.” [esferapública], 2017. http://esferapublica.org/nfblog/hacia-una-etnografia-digital-del-arte-contemporaneo-sumando-ausencias-doris-salcedo/

[9] Mirzoeff, Nicholas. “Introduction” in The Right to Look: A Counterhistory of Visuality. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011).

[10] Gómez-Barris, Macarena. The Extractive Zone: Social Ecologies and Decolonial Perspectives. (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017). 8

[11] Gómez-Barris. 4

[12] Holert, T., Aranda, J. Wood, K.B., and Vidokle, A. “Editorial – “Politics of Shine.”” E-Flux, Journal #61 (2015). http://www.e-flux.com/journal/61/60985/editorial-politics-of-shine/

[13] Ibid., 5

[14] Mirzoeff. 23

[15] Ibid.

[16]  Akkermans.

[17] An example of this kind of efforts is Luis Camnitzer’s (2009) Didáctica de la liberación: arte conceptualista latinoaméricano.

[18] Gómez-Barris. 5

[19] Mirzoeff. 24