Tuesday, February 19, 2008

… the crack gets a thumbs-up

Having heard quite a lot of second-hand (no slight intended) opinions about the latest Unilever Series installation at the Tate Modern, I finally decided that it was time to see this glorified crack in the floor for myself.

Shibboleth, that of Doris Salcedo, a Columbian sculptor/installation artist who became known in the UK in the late 1980s and 90s, the piece takes the form of a long, jagged fissure which runs along the length of the immense Turbine Hall at Tate. Before actually setting eyes on the piece, I’d heard much about it, with comments ranging from those in complete praise of it, to those with a seeming disbelief that the Tate even allowed such an atrocity though its doors.

In honesty, upon inspecting Shibboleth, I can’t say I believed that the piece ‘strikes to the very foundations of the museum’, as the explanatory leaflet would have you initially to believe. However to be fair, the crevice does appear to be quite deep in places, complete with embedded chain-link wire fence, which, as far as I can tell, seems to be a common feature in much of Salcedo’s work. The crack (now gradually filling with small items of rubbish, sweet wrappers, bits of chewing gum and balls of tumbleweed fluff), seems to me entirely convincing; quite feasibly the result of some minor tremor confined to the gallery. At first I can only guess at how the piece was made – in fact I couldn’t quite believe that the fault line is actually formed within the concrete floor of the gallery. Quite honestly how long will this be here exactly? Will it cause any lasting structural problems? The crevice is in fact a concrete cast, but this has of course had to be lowered into the floor of the museum itself.

Overall I have to admit that, despite the negative comments I’d previously heard regarding Shibboleth, I can’t really find any negative criticism for it; I was quite impressed by it. I recall a recent conversation with a friend who seems not only to disregard conceptual and contemporary art, but to positively repel art altogether, at least, anything that has been made after the 17th Century. “A crack in the floor – how can anyone possibly regard it as art?” came the disapproving utterance, to which I failed to find an answer for.

However for me, it has the monumental feel of certain previous installations within the Turbine Hall, such as Whiteread’s Embankment, for instance. I think that without a doubt Shibboleth successfully deals with the issues that Salcedo regularly addresses, including racism. A shibboleth, by all accounts, is ‘a word used as a test for detecting people from another district or country by their pronunciation; a word or sound very difficult for foreigners to pronounce correctly.’ Indeed, I’m not even certain that I’m pronouncing it properly.

Even still, I’m confident that my art-phobic friend would have to agree at least that the crack is shrouded in a sensation of unrest; it has a resonance with the violent biblical story from which the word ‘shibboleth’ is originally derived. A crack in the ground evokes an image of a powerful, violent happening, such as earthquake; or in Salcedo’s reference, to an artificial catastrophe rather than a natural one.

In conclusion, Shibboleth has become one installation that I’ll never forget; its shadow will probably always remain, when the piece is removed and the floor glossed over, like that scar that Salcedo is reminding us cannot be condemned to history.

I just can’t help but wonder if some poor soul has tripped over it yet.

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