Plegaria Muda: Doris Salcedo Installation at the MAXXI

A few days ago I was in desperate need of a Contemporary Art “fix”. Italians literally live and walk among ruins older than the founding of North America and you cannot seem to see it all, no matter how long you stay. After a long long long day at the Vatican, several traveling buddies split a 40,00 Euro cab ride, and enjoyed the 30 minutes of air condition as we rode to North Rome. To our surprise (after several discouraging opinions about the MAXXI) we embarked upon a Doris Salcedo Installation that satisfied our “fix”.

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Doris Salcedo’s work testifies on behalf of the lives silenced by unnecessary deaths in areas populated by marginalized people. Elements such as past, present, conflict and triumph are evident in the lives affected by unnecessary violence and thusly are the driving forces behind Salcedo’s work. In 2004- 2009, Salcedo traveled throughout ghettos of South East Los Angeles in response to an official report which stated that over 10,000 young people had died violent deaths over a twenty-one year period. During this same time in South America, the Colombian army lured young men from poor and marginalized neighborhoods with false promises of job opportunities into wooded areas, dressed them in rebel uniforms and slaughtered them in “combat”.  The death of these young men allowed the Colombian army to fabricate results in order to claim financial rewards offered by the government for killed guerrillas.

“Plegaria Muda” by Colombian artist Doris Salcedo at the Maxxi museum on March 14, 2012. (Courtesy Getty Images)

Disturbed and inspired by the commonalities in Los Angeles and Colombian deaths, Salcedo created Plegaria Muda, an installation consisting of over 120 pairs of tables, one stacked upside down on top of the other and merged with moist soil. The massive amount of rustic tables fill the gallery and have an eternal presence very much like a graveyard. In an eerily quiet, crescent shaped gallery, the viewer winds through the seemingly endless arrangements of stacked tables toward the opposite end of the gallery as if moving among headstones.

Although the driving force behind Plegaria Muda stems from unnecessary deaths, Salcedo’s installation is very much about the continuance of life and the elements that embody the lives affected by violence.  The tables vary in textures and shades of gray, yet remain consistent in size, thusly appearing weathered and heavily used. Those that connect to the ground, with the soil resting on top, represent the past, the dead or the missing. They also function as representations of conflict that have been laid to rest underneath the moist soil of the earth. The tables on top are in an unnatural state, upside down, with their legs facing the sky. They function as the present lives of the parents and loved ones that buried children as a result to Los Angeles and Colombian gang violence, crime or corruption. In an unnatural state, they are forever connected to the dead through the continuance of life. The soil that binds the living to the dead embodies a root system that enables green grass to grow through the wood of the table resting on top. The ability for life to continue after so much heart ache is triumphant. Salcedo’s installation not only acts as a testimony on behalf of marginalized people killed in society’s wars but also testifies to the lives that have continued to thrive within these societies regardless of Plegaria Muda, Muted Prayers.

‘Plegaria Muda’ by Doris Salcedo, 2012
all images courtesy MAXXI
images by p. tocci

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