Response: Shibboleth by Doris Salcedo

Tate Modern, London, November 9, 2007

shib·bo·leth n
1. a word or phrase frequently used, or a belief strongly held, by members of a group that is usually regarded by outsiders as meaningless, unimportant, or misguided
2. a saying that is widely used or a belief that is widely held, especially one that interferes with somebody’s ability to speak or think about things without preconception
(courtesy of Microsoft’s Encarta dictionary)

“It’s not art,” authoritively declares a small schoolboy to his gathered colleagues. “It’s not art.” Damning critical judgment delivered, the boy and his mates proceed to follow the not-artwork to its endpoint at the far side of the massive Turbine Hall, carefully negotiating the jagged edges of the chasm and jostling their way through the ever-expanding crowds who gather, staring, talking loudly and taking photos. It may not be art, but it is certainly a crowd-puller. Everyone in London it seems wants to see the crack that reportedly cost thirty thousand pounds.

Essentially Doris Salcedo’s un-sculptural Shibboleth is exactly that, a monumental artificial crack in the floor of the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall, like an earthquake-induced chasm with no rubble or other wreckage. It is simply a large crack in the floor, mute, passive, but also somehow ominous. The crack begins at one end and travels across the full length of the floor, several minor branches sprouting off as it travels, before finally disappearing beneath the glass wall at the other end. It utterly dominates the space, and I found it impossible to look anywhere else. The sheer scale of the work is mesmerising, its aesthetic and pragmatic daring intoxicating. And the buzzing crowds gathered around it seem genuinely excited, animatedly debating its desired effects, what it might mean, its cost, and of course its contested status as an artwork.

In terms of effects, it has one most significant and obvious, namely that it divides the vast, largely empty space into two, and to cross the hall, one must physically step over it. To step on this crack one might indeed break one’s back, which perhaps explains all of the warning signs spaced across the piece at irregular intervals, reminding patrons to step carefully. Several days before I attended this work, I read in one of the London newspapers that a woman had fallen over it and injured herself. While the crack is an interesting challenge for occupational health and safety, it is hard to imagine how this unnamed woman failed to see and avoid such obvious and impressive void space.

It’s difficult to imagine a contemporary artwork that better raises the spectre of Georges Bataille’s informe (formless). Shibboleth does uncomfortable things to aesthetic form, raising questions about the possibilities of response. How can such a monumental fracture be understood? Taxonomically? How is it like and unlike other artworks? What is its genre? Does it fit neatly into a hierarchy or history of contemporary art? Might it be understood in engineering terms, contained by the security of measurement? What is the average depth of the crack? What distance does it travel? Does the number of minor branches have any significance? What is the average width of the crack? What effect might this have upon the structural integrity of the building as a whole? Should the work be seen as an attack upon the literal architectural foundations of this art museum, and by inference all of the artworks contained within? Standing inside the Tate Modern in the face of this enormous gash in the concrete floor, are we standing on shaky aesthetic foundations as well? If, as the schoolboy declared, this is not art, does it have the effect of questioning the status of every other piece of art in the building? Might this be art as unmaking?

Rather than fixating upon its formal undoings, it is probably more productive to consider Shibboleth’s highly public staging of division and border crossing. In his catalogue notes, Martin Herbert notes that:

“Walking down Salcedo’s incised line … might well prompt a broader consideration of power’s divisive operations as encoded in the brutal narratives of colonialism, their unhappy aftermaths in postcolonial nations, and in the stand-off between rich and poor, northern and southern hemispheres.”

Shibboleth does indeed lend itself to this reading, but its effects are more engaging than such a focus on its darker implications might imply. Despite its clearly disturbing undertones, Shibboleth invites participation from its viewers, and is open to the production of joy and wonder. At the very least, it requires active engagement of its viewer – they must decide when and where to cross over the crack, and carefully enact this crossing, wary of injury. Large numbers of children (there were several school groups in attendance on this particular morning) enthusiastically leap over and over it, heedless of the potential danger. Audience members debate the work while placing themselves, consciously or not, on opposite sides of the crack, positioning themselves literally and figuratively. Most amusingly, a group of Tate Modern staff (judging by their photo ID tags) were conducting a meeting seated on opposite sides of the chasm. Despite the potential proxemic readings of this setting, they seemed quite cordial.

In fact, everyone seemed very friendly in the face of an artwork that could be seen as highly unsettling. Even to those like the schoolboy, who loudly proclaim a denial of its status as art, Shibboleth is pretty damned impressive, and is a triumph for the Tate Modern’s Unilever Series and its curator Achim Borchardt-Hume.

One question persists for me though as I walk back out in the cold windy streets of London: is this only a temporary exhibit? On 6 April 2008, the listed date for the exhibition ending, will the concreters will come in and paper over the cracks, erasing the fracture and restoring architectural order? After experiencing this work in situ, the potential future absence of Shibboleth seems even more unsettling than its current presence. See it while you can.

Photos taken by David Williams, the morning of November 9, 2007

UPDATE: Following a link off the fascinating artist blog A Confrontation with Falling, I've had the pleasure of reading Adrian Searle's response to Shibboleth in the Guardian. Well worth a look.


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