A Space of Art and Memory

Doris Salcedo’s Compelling Counter-Memorial

by | Aug 27, 2021

 

Fragmentos

 

Fragmentos: Espacio de Arte y Memoria is a stunningly beautiful counter-monument dedicated to the memory of the Colombian civil war and the suffering of all its victims. It was created in 2018 by Colombian artist Doris Salcedo and her architect collaborator, Carlos Granada, as part of the Museo Nacional de Colombia in Bogotá. It is a unique site among the untold number of memorials, monuments and museums across the world meant to nurture collective mourning and public accountability in the never-ending struggles of conflict memories of state terror, civil war, forced disappearances and genocide. Fragmentos is a work of art, an architectural marvel, an exhibition space, and a public “act of memory,” a term Salcedo has used to describe her widely exhibited sculptures and installations as well as the public commemorative events she has organized over the years on the Plaza Bolívar in Bogotá. 

Ethically committed to commemoration, Fragmentos is aesthetically opposed to all traditional forms of the monumental, which is why she calls it  a counter-monument. Its very form counters the static, figurative and mostly heroic dimension of official monuments such as men on horseback, obelisks or victory columns. While the counter-monument first emerged in the practice of German artists of the 1980s in the struggle to establish the memory of the Holocaust against an official culture of forgetting, Salcedo’s Fragmentos resulted from the official decision to seal the UN mediated peace treaty with the Revolutionary Armed Forces  (FARC) by creating three monuments to the armed conflict—one in Havana, where the treaty had been signed, one at the United Nations in New York and one in Bogotá. Deeply skeptical of government-sponsored monuments, Salcedo at first rejected the offer by former President Santos’s minister of culture to create a monument in Bogotá. Upon reflection, however, she quickly changed her mind, if only to prevent others to build what she feared would be a traditional  figurative and monumental eyesore.

Inside Patio.

 

***

Fragmentos: Espacio de Arte y Memoria is located on a bustling street leading straight to the Presidential Palace, City Hall and several ministries just a few blocks away. As one approaches, all one sees is a whitewashed wall with the letters F R A G M E N T O S cut through it, as if to allow the space to breathe. The entrance, preserved from the ruin of an old colonial building, is framed by its original ocher stone columns, a heavy wooden beam across and a decoratively molded cornice above that is flush with the top of the white wall. The old house number 544 from colonial times is still affixed to the beam right next to the current street number  6b -30 off the  Carrera 7. 

Visitors enter the space walking up a narrow passage paved with bricks and lined by rough walls left from the ruins of the colonial building on either side. Through a raw door frame on the right, one catches a glimpse of an open outside space framed by residual walls of the original building where a tree and a few large leafy plants grow beside the outside wall of the complex. On that wall, now seen from the inside, one can read the name Fragmentos in reverse. Moving on into the modern part of the building, one passes a white wall featuring a statement by the artist referring to the Peace Treaty and highlighting the fact that for the first time, victims of sexual violence had been able to participate in the construction of a space commemorating the end of armed conflict. 

The new construction, imaginatively embedded in the colonial ruin, consists of a minimalist modernist design supported by steel beams and featuring large glass walls, which allow the viewer to look out onto the residues of the colonial ruin outside, weathered and crumbling walls surrounded by lush green bushes and vegetation. Throughout the building, visitors walk on a floor consisting of dark grey unevenly sculpted tiles, made from 37 tons of melted weapons the guerrilla had surrendered after signing the 2016 peace treaty with the government.  The spine of the rectangular building runs along a long hallway, with openings to three inside rooms and outside spaces alternating to its right. 

The exterior of the building.

 

The hallway leads slightly upwards, flowing into the largest room, a typically modernist white cube intended for art exhibits or large lectures and conferences.  In this final room with its four white walls, the dark-tiled floor assumes its most ominous and powerful effect. One suddenly realizes that it is this floor that conveys the ultimate meaning of Fragmentos: made from thousands of AK-47s and other guns returned to their material substance and shaped into an aesthetic statement—a monument to violence overcome and a promise of peace. Throughout the inside of the building, this floor contrasts with the earthen grounds, green plants and ocher wall remnants of the colonial building outside the glass walls.  Its dark grey steel tiles extend from the spinal hallway into each of the three public spaces, dedicated to lectures, exhibits and video projections. The proximity of the sparse modernist architecture of glass, steel and white walls to the residual walls of the former colonial building, which is very much part of the total architectural plan, speaks volumes. The architectural past, though in a state of ruin, is preserved on this site dedicated to silent remembrance and commemorative art. It is as if the design of Fragmentos itself were to embody the very nature of memory: being of the past, but always and inevitably fragmentary and part of a present that remediates and preserves memory according to its own historical logic. Part sculptural installation, part memorial, part art museum, it is a space dedicated to the remembrance of a decades-long civil war in a society that still lacks an official politics of memory. It is intended to provide the ground for future art installations commemorating national suffering, for dialogs and discussions of art and politics in Colombia and elsewhere. Salcedo hopes that it will also provide a space for encounters of artists from the global South who all too often lack their own institutions and public sites for exhibition and debate.

The most extraordinary part of the project, however, is the process in which this stunning floor with its unevenly shaped tiles, made of the steel from the guerrilla’s weapons, was actually created. It involved politicians, the army and the police, guerrilla leaders and victims of sexual violence at a tenuous historical moment when lasting peace and reconciliation seemed to be on the horizon just before the new conservative government reignited the armed conflict. There is no question that it is this floor on which visitors walk, this collectively created installation art work, which is the conceptual and visual core of the space. The story of how the melted steel of thousands of guerrilla AK 47s came to be the sculpted floor of Fragmentos is essential to the memories it embodies.

Salcedo was confronted with a number of daunting tasks. Given the complexity of the peace negotiations and the political instability of the country, the FARC, mistrusting the Santos government’s peace proposal, had agreed only to a truce, but had been reluctant to surrender their weapons. The UN then had facilitated the next stage of the process. They brought in large containers, placing them in FARC-dominated areas. Slowly but surely, a majority of the guerrillas deposited their arms, which were then disabled by the UN and transported to a safe site. Though under nominal control of the UN, the containers still belonged to the FARC. After Salcedo accepted the government’s offer to create a memorial, she quickly developed her conceptual plan for the floor to be created by a collective of sexually abused women under her guidance. 

Minimalist modern design contrasts with colonial surroundings.

 

A first step was to approach the FARC to get them to agree to her plan using the guerrilla’s weapons. Salcedo started talking to Iván Márquez, the FARC leader who had negotiated the peace treaty. She presented her plan for the memorial, but he did not like it at all. He thought that people walking on the floor made up of melted weapons’ steel was humiliating the guerrilla. He also did not like Salcedo’s focus on rape and sexual violence, which, as he well knew, had been quite common among the guerrilla themselves. When she convinced him that her project would focus on perpetrators on all sides, he finally relented and accepted her design for the monument. Ironically, the Santos government had fewer hesitations to accept the reproach that the military, too, had committed sexual abuse in their war against the FARC.

Salcedo now had 37 tons of arms she needed to melt down in order to realize her project. The army was reluctant to help, sending her on a wild goose chase to various foundries across the country, though they knew they had the only facility powerful enough to do the job. Eventually the military relented when they were ordered by President Santos to cooperate. Salcedo now had control of the material for the art work.

From the hundreds of survivors of sexual abuse by the military or paramilitaries she had interviewed, Salcedo picked 20 women, mainly from a group of women organizers called Victimas and Profesionales,  who had organized shelters for abused women across the country teaching them how to deal with rape, how to survive, how to get compensation from the government, how to denounce what had happened to them. Salcedo had hoped to include another 20 guerrilla women, but they were forbidden by their commanders to participate. It was this victim collective of 20 that ultimately gave shape to the unevenly hammered steel panels that formed the floor of Fragmentos. Since the extreme hardness of the melted steel would have been too hard and too dangerous to hammer, Salcedo bought soft aluminum plates, which, after being collectively hammered, she formed into molds into which the molten steel was poured in the army’s foundry to cast the floor tiles. The collective hammering and bonding, in which Salcedo herself participated giving desired shape to the tiles, released the anger, the rage and, ultimately, the language with which the women gave public testimony about their experiences. As a witness of these women’s traumatic memories, Salcedo was able to transform their haunting and symptomatically reenacted memories into a collective narrative in which these women spoke publicly about their experience. This narrative is captured in a moving video documentary about the creation of Fragmentos. It is accessible online, and it is an essential part of the Fragmentos project itself.

Tiles made from rifles.

 

The government, the military, and the guerrilla, perpetrators and victims on all sides have been involved in the creation of Fragmentos. The project stands as institutional proof of the peace process and as public reproach to the current conservative government’s policies, which do not abide by the peace process and have reignited the armed conflict. Its floor also stands as material evidence against those who still doubt that the FARC had ever surrendered their weapons. The image of peace as false promise and mirage—the narrative which the government of Iván Duque Márquez is bent on establishing—is being countered by the very existence of Fragmentos, whose future as a memorial site is currently threatened by defunding. The fact that the conservative government is planning for its own Museum of Memory, no doubt putting all the blame on left-wing politics and the guerrilla, shows that the narrative of the civil war is still up for grabs in a deeply divided Colombian society.

Spring/Summer 2021Volume XX, Number 3

Andreas Huyssen is the Villard Professor Emeritus of German and Comparative Literature at Columbia University. His most recent book is Miniature Metropolis: Literature in an Age of Photography and Film (2015). He currently is writing a book on memory art from the Global South.

 

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