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Of What One Cannot Speak

Doris Salcedo’s Political Art

Doris Salcedo, a Colombian-born artist, addresses the politics of memory and forgetting in work that embraces fraught situations in dangerous places. Noted critic and theorist Mieke Bal narrates between the disciplines of contemporary culture in order to boldly reimagine the role of the visual arts. Both women are pathbreaking figures, globally renowned and widely respected. Doris Salcedo, meet Mieke Bal.

In Of What One Cannot Speak, Bal leads us into intimate encounters with Salcedo’s art, encouraging us to consider each work as a “theoretical object” that invites—and demands—certain kinds of considerations about history, death, erasure, and grief. Bal ranges widely through Salcedo’s work, from Salcedo’s Atrabiliarios series—in which the artist uses worn shoes to retrace los desaparecidos (“the disappeared”) from nations like Argentina, Chile, and Colombia—to Shibboleth, Salcedo’s once-in-a-lifetime commission by the Tate Modern, for which she created a rupture, as if by earthquake, that stretched the length of the museum hall’s concrete floor. In each instance, Salcedo’s installations speak for themselves, utilizing household items, human bones, and common domestic architecture to explore the silent spaces between violence, trauma, and identity. Yet Bal draws out even deeper responses to the work, questioning the nature of political art altogether and introducing concepts of metaphor, time, and space in order to contend with Salcedo’s powerful sculptures and installations.

An unforgettable fusion of art and essay, Of What One Cannot Speak takes us to the very core of events we are capable of remembering—yet still uncomfortably cannot speak aloud.

296 pages | 28 color plates, 31 halftones | 7 x 10 | © 2010

Art: Art Criticism, Art--General Studies

History: Latin American History


“After illuminating the work of Rembrandt, Caravaggio, Louise Bourgeois, Balthus, and other modern artists, Mieke Bal again demonstrates her extraordinary flair for cultural criticism in taking on the work of Doris Salcedo, exploring the philosophical and aesthetic stakes of this committed political art and the relation between beauty, violence, and memory. A tour de force.”

Jonathan Culler, Cornell University

“Seen against Bal’s magnificent oeuvre, Of What One Cannot Speak is the next innovative and brilliant book that will once again push the field of visual studies into unexplored areas. A fusion of monograph and theoretical essay, the book is best described as a demonstration of Bal teaching. She crucially teaches her audience how to make an encounter with an artwork productive—not by applying theoretical ideas, but by working through the object’s resistance, by allowing the object to speak back to you. Bal does not simply take Doris Salcedo’s work as her starting point, and neither does she argue that the violence of the political is somehow merely ‘reflected’ in it. Instead, she embarks on a much more ambitious and original project—initiating a discourse by allowing a work of art to take the lead.”

Hanneke Grootenboer, Oxford University

Of What One Cannot Speak offers a brilliant theoretical challenge to our understanding of the political in art after Adorno and after trauma theory. Mieke Bal gives us the most insightful and comprehensive reading to date of the work of Doris Salcedo as a new kind of ‘world art’ that cannot be relegated reductively to local color or to thematic dimensions such as memory and violence. Equally attentive to Salcedo’s materials as to her handling of metaphor and figuration, space and time, Bal’s book stands as a model work on the threshold between art criticism and interpretive analysis—truly interdisciplinary in the best sense.”

Andreas Huyssen, Columbia University

“Bal is a leading cultural critic, known for her engaging writing style and clarity, even when dealing with difficult theoretical concepts. Bal also has incredible respect for Salcedo and her work, as this book models a process of investigation akin to a dialogue with art, rather than a clinical dissection of it. Essential.”


Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

The Case
The World
The Book

1 Metaphoring: Singularity in Negative Space
Metaphor and Negative Space
Metaphoring Negativity
The Insistence of Metaphor
The Act of Metaphoring
Metaphor as Skin
Atrabiliarios as Political Object

2 The Politics of Anthropomorphism
The Anthropomorphic Imagination
Locating Violence
House Without Spouse
Theaters of Gender
On the Move

3 Timing
Negations of Place
No More Bones
Foreshortening Time

4 The Agency of Space: Installation
Listening to Time in Space
Abduction into Pain
History and the Event in the Present
New Space

5 Acts of Memory
An Act in Search of an Agent
Perception and Memory for Witnessing
Acting Memory
Meanwhile: Herenow
Active Space
Shibboleth of Past and Present

Conclusion: Political Art Takes Place

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