A Peace Monument in Colombia Is Caught in a New Crossfire

A Peace Monument in Colombia Is Caught in a New Crossfire

BOGOTÁ, Colombia — Some art is meant to change the world, and that certainly can be said of most things Doris Salcedo has made. Her works warn of the horrors that a war can unleash, particularly on women, and specifically the one she lived through, which ripped apart her native Colombia for 52 years.

But sometimes things work the other way around, and world events change art. That is what happened to “Fragmentos,” the 5,000-square-foot, walk-through installation Ms. Salcedo completed in downtown Bogotá in December. The piece is formed from 37 tons of rifles turned in by 13,000 rebels as part of a peace agreement signed with the government in 2016.

The artist melted them down in a foundry and employed women who had suffered physical and sexual abuse during the conflict to help shape the steel into 1,296 rough tiles, which were then laid on the floor of a new monument and gallery constructed around the ruins of a 17th-century colonial house. “Fragmentos,” though solemn and simple, was intended to commemorate peace.

But peace is unraveling. The government was slow to follow through on promises to invest in rural areas where extreme poverty led to violence in the first place. Social inequities remain rampant, and leaders of the most ardent rebel factions, left empty-handed and embarrassed, called for an official return to arms in early September.

That leaves “Fragmentos” in a strange place. If its highest purpose was to serve as a reminder of lessons learned, then what does it become if the students, an entire nation in this case, are in danger of failing the class?

Ms. Salcedo, a graduate of New York University and a Guggenheim fellow, believes that her piece continues to hold power — maybe even more so now. She built it to withstand current events, she said, in a country where peace has often been elusive.

That creative effort came with its own conflicts. The idea of a monument made from guns is actually detailed in the peace accord, though the artist, who was chosen to construct it by the government then led by Juan Manuel Santos, wanted nothing to do with it. She works in metaphors most often, constructing her large-scale installations from simple everyday objects, such as kitchen tables, which represent ordinary lives, or by creating voids to stand in for the divisions and borders that separate humanity. The most famous example is Shibboleth,” the 548-foot-long crack she cut into the concrete floor of London’s Tate Modern in 2007.

But she could not stand the idea of leaving it to someone else who might create something more triumphal from all those AK-47s “that produced so much pain, so much death and damage and all sorts of murders and extortion and everything else,” she said. More than 220,000 people died during the war and more than five million were displaced, in a country of 49 million.

“I thought, I don’t want them to be monumentalized,” she said in an interview in her studio in Bogotá in September. “I don’t think they deserve to be on a pedestal and respected as a grandiose idea that we should all look up to.”

Instead, she wanted people to look down. “I thought that it would be wonderful if the power that a man holds in a gun could be reversed, turned upside-down,” she said, “and we could all stand on these weapons.”

That meant getting approval for her “countermonument” from both Colombian generals and rebel leaders, who had all envisioned a more glorious tribute when they signed the treaty. Ms. Salcedo used her powers of persuasion, and her clout as one of Colombia’s internationally recognized artists, to convince them that a dose of humility would be in the best interest of the country.

She was also facing a political deadline. Mr. Santos, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for negotiating the accord with the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, known as the FARC, was term-limited and left office in 2018. The artist and her creative team, led by the architect Carlos Granada, suspected that the newly elected conservative Iván Duque, a populist critic of the peace process, could pull support for “Fragmentos.”

“We designed the whole project, complete with all the detailed engineering, without knowing if was going to happen,” Mr. Granada said.

Ms. Salcedo proposed her idea officially in December 2017. The entire process — identifying the site, drawing plans and building — was completed in just 12 months.

That included forming the tiles. Each of the recovered guns, collected at United Nations depots across Colombia, was counted and weighed and kept under tight security. The caches of weapons were transported to the country’s only foundry capable of melting them, which happens to be controlled by the military. Ms. Salcedo made sure that the total weight of her tiles matched the total weight of the weapons so no questions would be asked later.

Simultaneously, she invited women who had experienced trauma during the war to come to Bogotá as part of the art-making — both civilian victims of abuse and female soldiers who had experienced the trauma of war firsthand. The artist knew exactly whom to call; she has made numerous projects about the conflict, based on hundreds of interviews she has conducted with people who were impacted by the violence, or caused it.

In the end, the guerrillas turned her down, but 60 women did assemble in a Bogotá workshop for two weeks. She gave them mallets and sheets of aluminum and invited them to hammer.

At first, they tapped cautiously, she said, not striking hard enough to the make the dents, folds and crevasses that would supply the monument’s “beat-up metal” appearance. But as the days went on, working with counselors and conferring with each other, they began to hit harder. Together, they created molds into which the molten steel was poured.

A video documenting that hammering plays at “Fragmentos” and is part of the experience of wandering down the long hallway and three large rooms that make up the place. It is not unusual to see visitors break down in tears, or simply fall to the floor.

“Fragmentos” debuted as a series of empty rooms, but in September it began serving as a gallery for other artists’ work on the topic of reconciliation, part of a program of exhibitions set to run 52 years, the length of the war. The kickoff show features Felipe Arturo’s version of body armor: outfits made of leather, ceramic, sand and other materials that are actually bulletproof when layered together. Visitors are invited to wear the garments in the gallery.

Enabling other artistic voices fulfills the goal of making “Fragmentos” a collaborative effort, a collection of contributions from the artists, the women, the construction crew and, in a sense, every fighter who gave up a weapon. They all serve as witnesses to events in Colombia, both the brutality and that moment when people came together — however briefly it might turn out to be — to sign a treaty and stop the violence.

If divisions continue to worsen, Ms. Salcedo hopes that the pause in the fighting may be one thing that reminds people that a more lasting peace is possible, through even deeper negotiation and a resolve to fix problems without guns. “Fragmentos,” where that moment is sealed, could transform from a historical document to a beacon for future possibilities.

“Whoever wants to say this peace accord was fake, that it didn’t happen, they can just go to ‘Fragmentos’ and they are there,” she said. “The guns are there.”

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