Visible cracks, real and illusory

Sunday 15 November 2015

(Originally posted on 6 February 2008.)

As has been proved many times before, it is foolish to pass judgement on a work of art before seeing it for yourself. I finally saw Doris Salcedo’s Shibboleth at the Tate Modern.

There has been plenty of discussion about the artwork since it was first installed – what it means, how it was made, whether or not it’s any good – so much that it is impossible to not be aware of its existence, nor of what the work consists of. (It’s a crack running the length of the floor in the Tate’s Turbine Hall, growing wider and deeper as it descends from one end to the other.) You could picture the entire installation in your head, except for one little detail that I’ve never heard mentioned when people discuss their visits to see it. At close range, the crack is revealed to be an obvious fabrication, with no attempt to conceal the wire forms embedded in the concrete.

For the weekend crowds peering inside its depths, or hopping back and forth over it, Shibboleth may as well be invisible if its success depends on the interpretation given to it by the artist and the museum:

In particular, Salcedo is addressing a long legacy of racism and colonialism that underlies the modern world. ‘The history of racism’, Salcedo writes, ‘runs parallel to the history of modernity, and is its untold dark side’. … In breaking open the floor of the museum, Salcedo is exposing a fracture in modernity itself. Her work encourages us to confront uncomfortable truths about our history and about ourselves with absolute candidness, and without self-deception.

Even ignoring the fact that the history of racism runs parallel to the history of everything, it’s hard not to read this as a fatuous piece of funding-speak. You don’t have to doubt Salcedo’s personal background and beliefs that support her art to see that her public interpretation of her own art reduces Shibboleth to a one-liner, simplistic and ineffectual. The installation is as much a tourist attraction as the building that houses it. Salcedo may be “keen to remind us” of “the existence of a huge socially excluded underclass”, but Shibboleth, in this context, utterly fails to fulfil her intention.

(Strangely, for all her talk of schisms and exclusions, the only interpretations I’ve seen of the formative mesh in the crack have been either abstractly structural or overly symbolic. I would have thought it made an obvious point that apparently natural divisions in race or religion turn out under closer scrutiny to be artificial, human constructs. Then the art could at least function in its own way as a neat little metaphor, if little more.)

In fact, Salcedo makes out her installation to be less of a work of art than it really is, although its true power may be of a type she did not intend, or even recognise.

The immediate image conveyed by Shibboleth when seen plain, beguilingly forging its path of destruction through the crowds inevitably wandering the Turbine Hall, is not one of division but of entropy. Starting almost undetectable at the high end of the hall, it is allowed to progress, or rather deteriorate, along the floor unchecked until it has opened up into a real tripping hazard for visitors. The image of a cultural institution whose foundations have been permitted to shift, and so decay, is potent; but in the Western World of the early 21st century it speaks to a different dilemma than the artist intended.

The Tate’s claim that the crack “encourages us to confront uncomfortable truths about our history and about ourselves” isn’t exactly true. In truth, its presence embodies our culture’s current readiness to doubt itself, and to question its own origins, validity, and integrity – with little or no outside encouragement. The entropy was built into the system. This self-examination and picking apart of the social assumptions that underpin our culture could lead to renewal, or to disintegration. For a jaded society of sophisticates, the threat of destruction and disaster is extremely seductive. (As one reviewer says, “Salcedo’s cut is always varied and pleasurably violent. I’m not sure the pleasure is intended.”)

Salcedo’s professed aim to expose the dark side of modernity began within modernism itself in the immediate aftermath of the Second World War. In 1949, Charles Olson reflected on the inability of modernism to cope with the fragmentary nature of reality – it is no coincidence he had invented the word “post-modern” the year before – and wrote in his poem “The Kingfishers”:

When the attentions change / the jungle
leaps in
               even the stones are split
                                                       they rive