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Doris Salcedo’s ‘Palimpsesto’: an eerie installation rooted in Spain’s colonial past

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Manon Kidney and Isabel Goodman cover Doris Salcedo’s latest exhibition, ‘Palimpsesto’: a site-specific installation that follows Madrid’s hauntingly beautiful Palacio de Cristal back to its role in Spain’s colonial past. 

Hidden in the depths of Madrid’s biggest green space Parque del Retiro, the Palacio de Cristal looks like the sort of place you’d want to host your dream wedding reception. It’s a beautiful glass structure that stands by a lake surrounded by trees, but Colombian artist Doris Salcedo uses the space to remind us of the political and historical atrocities that the building represents. The palace which currently houses her installation Palimpsesto was first built for the Exhibition of the Philippine Islands in the late 19th Century. Although now a tranquil, light space, Salcedo makes mention of its original use, forcing us to remember the traumas of Spain’s colonial past.

Palimpsesto is therefore a site-specific project, and the jarring conflict between the aesthetic pleasure of the space and the tragic nature of Salcedo’s work alerts us to reconsider our position of mere enjoyment.  

The Crystal Palace in Parque Retiro, Madrid, which holds Doris Salcedo’s installation Palimpsesto until April.

This exhibition covers the entire surface of the palace, and refers directly to all those who have drowned trying to reach Europe in their attempts to emigrate. Emerging from the floor are drops of water that slowly join in order to make the names of hundreds of men and women who died searching for a better life with greater freedoms. In the exhibition description, Salcedo shares her intention to ‘present violence without violence’, to make the pain of the victims she serves perceptible without having to show it explicitly.

The simplicity of the installation does not require you to decipher its parts, but instead asks for contemplation as you walk around the space reading the names that overlap. Some are barely visible, indicated with only a trace left as a watermark, embossed onto the floor, leaving the threat of being written over hanging in the air. Salcedo accepts that as outsiders, we cannot unlock the pain contained within these traumatic experiences, and instead simply invites us to remember these people and acknowledge their absence.

Before entering, you must first cover your shoes for protection, a step which creates a primary pause for reflection. The encouragement of movement is an invitation to consider each life represented, and the absence of specificity refuses us the opportunity to latch onto one particular name or story.

In an enchanting, yet slightly haunting setting, Salcedo’s work certainly stirs up considerable reflection on behalf of the victims she is fighting for.  

The presence of the victims hangs in the air through the shadows.

The names of refugees that drowned trying to reach Europe are written over each other in water droplets.


Doris Salcedo’s Palimpsesto is at Palacio de Cristal, Reina Sofía Museum, Madrid 6 October 2017–1 April 2018.


All photos courtesy of Manon Kidney