Doris Salcedo’s Shibboleth: a presence not an absence

4 11 2007

If you visit Tate Modern before 6 April 2008 you can witness an amazing, large-scale work of art that brings people together and inspires more physical interaction than I recall witnessing before in an art gallery. At the top of the ramp as you enter the gallery is a modest crack in the concrete floor, but as it spreads down the ramp and across the vast, empty turbine hall the crack widens, deepens and bifurcates.

Direction of the crack

The flow of the crack down the ramp is compelling. You move slowly because you’re looking down as you walk, though you need to be alert to the people around you who are also fascinated. As the crack widens, some of the detail inside it becomes clear, and you’ll want to reach into it to touch the interior surfaces and explore their textures.

This is more interesting than I thought it would be.

You’ll probably want to photograph it too, and maybe you’ll need to sit or lie down on the crack itself in order to plunge your camera into the gap and capture a perspective that can’t really be seen with the naked eye. Afterwards, perhaps you’ll pause to consider the rather sexual imagery on your camera and in your actions.

In the crack

And there you have it: right away, even before people have reached the foot of the entrance ramp rules about how to behave in an art gallery are being broken down. People are looking at each other almost as much as they’re looking at the crack and the locus of the art has shifted – at least for me – from the individual response to the crack to the individual response to a whole gallery full of people responding to the crack. It’s an experience that draws people together.

Shibboleth: a word or sound very difficult for foreigners to pronounce correctly…It is, therefore, a way of separating one people from another.

The crack is a flaw in the perfection of the Tate’s floor and its presence transforms. The artist, Doris Salcedo, wanted people to look down and she certainly achieved that. For her the split in the floor is about the dangers and rejections of crossing borders

So I am making a piece about people who have been exposed to extreme experience of racial hatred and subjected to inhuman conditions in the first world. This piece is trying to introduce into the Turbine Hall another perspective, and the idea is that we all look down and maybe try to encounter the experience of these people

The imperfection that has been introduced makes people look down and both the behaviour of those I observed and my own responses suggest that it also demands a physical response, exploring it with the body as much as the mind. Almost everyone seemed to put a hand or a foot into the crack, to stand in or astride it as though this were an atavistic response like picking at a scab. It also seems to make people behave in a less inhibited manner suggesting that the imperfection makes the experience of art less intimidating, despite The Guardian‘s attempts to spin it as endangering art lovers.

Focal point of the crack

OK. It’s a crack. What am I supposed to feel?

Looking down from the bridge across the turbine hall it is easy to discern the path of the crack because of the way the crowd coagulates along it.

Along the crack

This is supposed to be art?

I’m not sure whether it’s a strange thing or entirely predictable that there was a pervasive drive to capture the crack, which isarguably an absence, by photographing or drawing it. The artist mentions that the crack will persist after the exhibition is over,filled in and thereby sealed into the floor (and maybe people’s memories) as a scar.

Drawing the crack

As these pictures from The Guardian indicate, the press assessment of Shibboleth was made in an otherwise empty gallery. The journalists’ experience is therefore very different from that of the viewing public and seems to focus on the artist’s own feelings about the work and its representation of divisions. As reported on MUSE-INGS, however, the response of Mexican President Vicente Fox to a photograph of the work was to interpret it as a ‘message that people connect even over borders. Love and companionship overcome any problem, even if it’s a difficult border or difficult relations’.

— words by Elizabeth, pictures by Paul




5 responses

4 11 2007

Having missed the Tate Modern’s slides I am determined to get down to London to see this. I love your photos – particularly those shots with people interacting with the crack – they are so dynamic. I suspect it’s far more interesting to witness ordinary people reacting to the work, rather than critics trying to interpret the artist’s intentions.

5 11 2007

Thanks for this. You’re right, of course, that art changes to meet the people available; a solo view and a private view and a public view are three different experiences, which with installation pieces means three different artworks.

I haven’t been to the Turbine Hall since the extraordinary Olafur Eliasson set a sunrise in it; your piece here is an encouragement to go see this.

11 11 2007

i spent about an hour in there, and i didn’t have a lot of thoughts about it, it just was…. my timing was a bit off though, it was school holidays, a couple of weeks ago…. it is one of those pieces that, for me, needs to be viewed in solitude, and for that, there, not much chance…. another interesting thing about the crowds, they made the upstairs permanent collection of all the big time modern art look basically like junk, and that was very amusing to me

barbican, seduction, or whatever it was called, a total waste of time for me, boring, despite the name artists

two favorite show that week, no, three, the hayward, (fell in love with peter doig), the gagosian (same name modern art stuff, but with an aura, so interesting) and the tate britain…. ok, the RA too, if nothing else to see art as therapy, courtesy of baselitz…

now i am back in india, and the stuff piled up against the wall of my neighbor’s hut is really interesting….

2 12 2007

This is interesting – I’d forgotten you’d written about Shibboleth. I love your pictures.

My take was somewhat different: I really liked the interplay with the crowd and the way one naturally interacted with the crack, but it didn’t mean anything to me. I did sit on it, though…

31 01 2010
Things that were, things that weren’t, things that are and things that may be « Inversion Layer

[…] is, like Shibboleth by Doris Salcedo, an installation that only works with the active involvement of the […]

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