Shibboleth by Doris Salcedo

Cracks Appear At Tate Modern As Doris Salcedo Tackles Turbine Hall

By Jon Pratty | 08 October 2007

shows a photo of people looking into a crack in a concrete floor

Cracks extend the whole length of Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall. © Jon Pratty / 24 Hour Museum

Colombian artist Doris Salcedo has taken the opportunity offered by Tate’s Unilever series to tear a great crack into the concrete floor of the Turbine Hall. It’s a jagged and yet puzzling intervention by an artist who is explicitly political in everything she does.

At the Tate press conference launching her project on October 8 2007 she refused to spell out how the chasm was built, preferring to underline her message about its meaning: “It’s about the experience of being a third world person, here, now, in London.”

shows a photo of a woman talking

Artist Doris Salcedo explains more about Shibboleth at a Tate Modern press conference. © Jon Pratty / 24 Hour Museum

Tate is the place to explore this, she asserts. “It’s the perfect place to bring these issues out into the open, to experience the role art plays in all this. The history of western art has created stereotypes…created a European view of art,” asserted Salcedo.

It’s a provocative position, informed by Salcedo’s interest in radical art politics and heroes of the past like Joseph Beuys. Making a massive and possibly dangerous change to the fabric of the nation’s most popular modern art gallery is also risky. Tate’s Nicholas Serota, also present at the launch, explained his worries about the project.

“Our first thoughts were – could we realise it? It was by no means straightforward. Could we build it? Wouldn’t it damage Tate Modern? It’s the floor of the Turbine Hall broken open, after all. Once it’s over, a scar will remain, and both we, and subsequent artists, will have to walk over it.”

shows a crack in concrete

Salcedo has imposed the cracks over the existing concrete forms. © Jon Pratty / 24 Hour Museum

As you walk around the eery, empty, concrete landscape, your eye is drawn down into the crack, tracing the path it makes across the vastness of Tate Modern. It’s tempting to be slightly disappointed by the lack of spectacle here, comparing Salcedo’s subtle political vision to the grandiose schemes of Anish Kapoor, Olafur Eliasson or Carsten Holler.

But take time to look and think, and to examine the fabric of what has been done here. Shibboleth has power, but it takes some appreciation of the artist’s message. As with a lot of art ‘interventions’, clues about meanings can be augmented by reading supporting writing or captions.

Get down on the floor and smell the recently-polished suface of the concrete, and look into the void too. Tate and the artist have carefully tried to manipulate the release of information about the building of Shibboleth, and this has an curious effect. You want to see more, to find a deeper bit, to discern if there is perhaps another layer to the project.

Some technical knowledge of the engineering or building techniques used here might destroy some of the artist’s intended impact, so you can see why there’s been some management of the facts and details of the building of Shibboleth. Looking closer, you realise that there’s been an excavation of a series of channels into the foundations of the Turbine Hall, which have then been refilled carefully with steel mesh reinforcing forming the skeleton of the crack.

shows a section through a crack in a concrete floor

The chasm is about a metre deep in places. It’s reinforced with steel mesh. © Jon Pratty / 24 Hour Museum

The word Shibboleth refers to a test of membership or exclusion from a particular group or social class. Its meaning originates from an Old Testament story which describes the largest massacre recounted in the Bible.

After defeating the Ephraimites in battle the Gileadites challenged the survivors to pronounce the word ‘shibboleth’. The Ephraimites were victimised by their failure to pronounce the ‘sh’ sound and 42,000 were butchered.

shows people standing around looking at a crack in a concrete floor

When the project is over, the cracks will leave ‘scars’ © Jon Pratty / 24 Hour Museum

Angered at the political situation in her native Colombia as well as in the rest of the world, Salcedo’s Shibboleth is purely political and personal – unconcerned with aesthetics or the process of craft.

At its widest the crack is not large enough to fall down but could certainly cause a twisted ankle. The danger of the crack adds to the sombre political mood it generates, but of course Tate staff will be present to avert accidents.

Shibboleth may not make such a widespread impact as Carsten Holler’s giant slides did in the previous Unilever slot, but in a perverse way it is about the same thing. Holler’s work probably brought many people into Tate Modern who would never have bothered entering a gallery before.

Salcedo’s Shibboleth, in contrast, is hard to look at, dense in it’s theorising, construction and layers of meaning. But it’s also about the outside world: people and populations who aren’t able to visit well-funded art institutions, people who might think culture is ‘not for the likes of us’, people who fall into the cracks of society, and can’t get out again.



Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s