CHICAGO — When the elevators at the Museum of Contemporary Art here stop on the fourth floor, they usually open on a large, airy lobby with a view of Michigan Avenue. These days, they open onto a vast art installation by the Colombian sculptor Doris Salcedo that evokes a mass grave.
The space is filled with wooden tables arranged in pairs, one resting upside down on the other, with a thick layer of soil sandwiched between. The work delivers a beauty and fragility that seems the very image of hope, as slender blades of grass poke through tiny holes in the wood. But the effect is also anxiety-inducing: Dozens of tables the size of coffins incite a feeling of claustrophobia.
Featured in Ms. Salcedo’s first museum retrospective, which opens on Feb. 21 and runs through May 24, the walk-in graveyard of “Plegaria Muda” (“Silent Prayer”) was inspired by her 2004 research into gang violence in Los Angeles and by the 2008 discovery that members of the Colombian Army had been killing innocent civilians and dressing their corpses in guerrilla uniforms to claim government bounties.
In modern, war-torn societies “we have lost our ability to mourn,” Ms. Salcedo, 56, said in late January. “I want my work to play the role of funeral oration, honoring this life.”
At this stage, her unconventional memorial does not have sufficient funding or community support to be realized before the Chicago show closes. “Cities don’t like to advertise the fact that they have so many deaths from gun violence,” she said.
Still, she is now considering sites in New York. “I’m obsessed,” Ms. Salcedo said, with a resolve that seems, like much of her art, to be sharpened by the public’s indifference to suffering. “Even though nobody wants the piece, I’m still working on it.”
A version of this article appears in print on February 15, 2015, on page AR24 of the New York edition with the headline: Honoring Lives Lost to Violence. Order Reprints| Today’s Paper|Subscribe