And it intrudes well, this installation by Colombian artist, Doris Salcedo, as she ends up making a fairly permanent mark on the Turbine Hall at the Tate Modern.

As you look in you can get the feeling of catastrophe in there but nonetheless outside is quite subtle and I wanted a piece that intrudes in the space, that it is unwelcome like an immigrant that just intrudes without permission, just gets in slowly and all of a sudden it’s there and it’s a fairly big presence. (See Video or download the .rtf transcript of the interview)

Shibboleth - 1

I have never been a huge fan of installation art, more often I have failed to grasp the intended or the experienced meaning. When I first heard of ‘the crack’, as it is called, I was intrigued, however. More so, because I was intrigued by the fact that the Tate allowed someone to crack open the floor in the name of art.

I had to see it. And I did, this Saturday.

The intrigue, expanded from more than just, “how the crack got there”. If you are there on a Saturday, it becomes an almost-anthropological experience – looking at the way people interact with the Shibboleth. Most, you will notice, will attempt to put a limb or two down the crack.

In the context of the artist’s thought process, “…Salcedo is addressing a long legacy of racism and colonialism that underlies the modern world”, it is almost ironical to see most people walking on either side of the crack. While the artist invites you to explore the unimaginable depth of the art form, in a way it divides the floor in two, and at one place, almost three areas. The dimension of the art is not just in the depth of the installation, it is also in the flat expanse of the breadth where it has been created.

Shibboleth - 2

Historically, gorges, mountain, and water bodies created boundaries. Then man decided to draw imaginary lines around the land he lived off, claiming a space. While this abstract shape was given an identity and called a country, the focus shifted to the borders – either protecting them or expanding them. On a crowded day in the Tate, this is another observation. The crowd along the “boundary”.

The Shibboleth looks like a fissure, almost, created by an earthquake – but it doesn’t try to hide the fact that this is an artificial fissure. The edges are sharp and “unnatural” and have distinct features of human intervention. Inside the crack, where it expands in certain places, the two ‘walls’ of the crack are ‘kept in check’ by a wire mesh. According to the artist:

Wire mesh is embedded within the exposed opening, used, she said, because it is “the most common means of control used to define borders and divisions”.

“It represents borders, the experience of immigrants, the experience of segregation, the experience of racial hatred,” she said. “The space which illegal immigrants occupy is a negative space. And so this piece is a negative space.” (Via Guardian Blog: Salcedo causes a rift at Tate Modern)

Shibboleth - 4

From where I saw it, the Shibboleth is definitely multi-dimensional.

This also happens to be the first installation art that I have been able to relate to. Perhaps it was the scale and format of the Shibboleth.

Shibboleth, which, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is “a word used as a test for detecting people from another district or country by their pronunciation; a word or a sound very difficult for foreigners to pronounce correctly”. The Old Testament relates that the Ephraimites were trying to cross the river Jordan when they were caught by their sworn enemies the Gileadites, who forced them all to say the word “shibboleth”. Since the unfortunate Ephraimites’ dialect did not include the sound “sh”, this allowed the Gileadites to identify and slaughter large numbers of Ephraimites. So a shibboleth, the leaflet continues, is “a token of power: the power to judge and kill”. (Via Guardian Blog: Cracked!)

Imagine, a word – being represented on such a grand scale. Some words carry within them a vast history of experience.

More images of the Shibboleth


6 thoughts on “Shibboleth

  1. It remains, however, just a crack in the floor. That is its only intrinsic property and without the schpiel that’s all it would be. I would not have known it was intruding or about immigration had I not read your post.

    I went yesterday, looked all over the place of the Salcedo exhibition in the Turbine Hall (my first ever visit to Tate Modern although I used to regularly visit the Tate on Millbank years ago) and couldn’t find the exhibition. I assumed the crack was just a permanent feature of the building. I asked at information where the Salcedo exhibition is and they said that’s it: the crack in the floor.

    I must be just a grumpy old philistine.


  2. ==Jim:
    Welcome to Gaizabonts!

    Well in that case, we all would be grumpy old philistines, some time or the other.
    We see cracks all the time in our lives, all around, perhaps putting it in an art gallery makes it come alive and be meaningful.



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