After the fact
Doris Salcedo At Camden Arts Centre, Arkwright Road, London NW3 until 11 November
You cannot help but be moved by these new works by Doris Salcedo. They have a rawness and ambiguity that makes you question both what you see and how you respond.
Angled lead studs fill and spill out of the room, forming a low-level, criss-crossing web that spans from wall to wall.At first they seem random and almost playful - like large-scale pick-up-sticks, casually dropped into a room that was then shrunk to fit.
But then you realise that the studs are extended legs of chairs that have been lined up and thrown to the ground. Alice in Wonderland and a firing squad; dreamily, and quite shockingly, surreal.
The piece is called Tenebrae, Noviembre 7, 1985; it is Salcedo's response to a political massacre that took place in Bogota, Columbia. It is not a narrative work - it tells no story; it is more an expression of the event that we then read abstractly, attaching our own feelings, reflecting on what we decide.
The lead rods, or chair legs, are cast from what seems to be standard 2 by 2 timber studs, that humble material that is so much part of our built fabric, but one that we rarely see exposed. Not that you see studs here, just lead, a material with a luscious matt quality that takes on the subtlest of splinter marks and appears to absorb all the light in the room; there are no strong shadows.
Salcedo's previous work, particularly the poignant Unland series that was displayed at Tate Britain in 1999, used handcraft as a key expressive tool. There, ordinary wooden tables were cut in two and remade, mismatched halves forced together, morphed into a whole. The objects were displaced and alien, but were united by a fine web of silk and hair woven through the rupture, shrouding and repairing the join.
Nothing is hand made in Tenebrae; it is coolly cast, no human hand softens the impact, or dilutes the pain.
It is so ambiguous, both in material and through the visual expression. Lead cannot span that distance - you know that, and it looks too soft to span too. And although you decide that the chairs are being gunned down by a constant stream of bullets, the rods slowly start jousting. Are they attacking? Defending? Who is to blame?
This questioning is a deliberate ploy on Salcedo's part.While the Unland series identified with obvious victims of war (one piece was titled The Orphan's Tunic), Tenebrae suggests that the distinction between the persecutor and the persecuted is not that clear cut.We are graphically shown how difficult and divisive it is to blindly condemn.
In these post-World Trade Center times, this rings with remarkable resonance.
Sarah Jackson is an architect in London.
Phaidon has published a monograph on Doris Salcedo with texts by Robin Banks et al (160pp, £19.95)