Shibboleth

My love-hate relationship with Tate Modern continues with the new large-scale work in the Turbine Hall, Shibboleth by Doris Salcedo.

The Turbine Hall is a fantastic space that allows for some large-scale works that couldn't happen anywhere else. The excellent second work in the Unilever series, Double Bind by Juan Muñoz, was sadly underrated, but some of the other installations - notably the Weather Project by Olafur Eliasson and the Flaying of Marsyas by Anish Kapoor were recognised as being very successful. Their success is in part because they are large, dramatic and accessible; they offer plenty to be read into them and bring people in because they are unusual. They are easy to engage with but are not banal, facile or obvious. I'm afraid that Shibboleth is.

It would perhaps be useful to provide a description of Shibboleth. It is, of course, a crack, starting at the top of the main entrance to the Turbine Hall on the ramp and descending, while widening, deepening and branching along the length of the room. Looking into the crack, you can see the wire-reinforced concrete construction of the floor and the sides of the crack are not parallel, giving a convoluted and turbulent depth to its wider sections.

My suspicion is that we are meant to understand that racism can tell us something about our society by looking into the disfigurement it causes; that some people are very close to the split in society while others are so far way from it that it will not impede their course; and that the foundations of our society are shaky.

In reverse order, while the foundations of our society may or may not be shaky, the presence of a crack in the floor of Tate Modern has in no way affected the structural integrity of the building. I stood on the roof with nairy a tremor. Indeed, it gives the opposite meaning to the artist's intentions, saying that society can continue despite major damage to its foundations or that racism isn't really that big a deal.

Secondly, the position of the crack suggests that there are varying distances from racism or, indeed, any similar division in society. While people may not perceive themselves as affected by racism, its potency is in that it cuts across society; if you are not aware of it or do not believe it exists, you are even more likely to be stumbling across it while if you do 'see' it you cannot be removed from it. Equally, racism is not the only social schism and if such divides must be represented two-dimensionally on the floor of a gallery, a series of islands, some linked by bridges, formed by cross-cutting cracks would be more appropriate.

Finally, it is wrong - dead wrong - to depict society as a flat surface disrupted by the scar of racism. Racism, if it is anything, is the search for that very monoculture and I would not want to live in such a barren and featureless society that we can only learn more about it through its fractures; moreover, I do not believe that is so and those aspects of the Tate that deal with the fullness of the human condition are testament enough to that.

In short, the interpretation of racism and colonialism that Shibboleth gives us is simplistic. 'The history of racism', Salcedo writes, 'runs parallel to the history of modernity, and is its untold dark side'. This immediately implies that racism is not prior to modernity; given that the existence of nations implies national conflict, there is a good argument to say that racism existed well before modernity that is reinforced by looking at, say, the views held of the Macedonians by the Attic Greeks.

If we overlook that, Shibboleth still falls down. Racism is not a single divisor; nor is it just between the west and the rest. I won't go into any great length, but the complex racial relationships in the Spanish empire, with complex hierarchies of pensinsular, criollo, mestizo and indio1. To say that racism is just that is not only ignorant but dangerous - it allows no conceptual space for anti-Semitism or brown-on-black (and vice-versa) racism.

As I said at the beginning, the visions of racism, division and society that Shibboleth gives us are banal, facile and obvious. They are also wrong.

I would not for a moment say that Shibboleth should not have been attempted but it reminds us that the price of good art is bad art.

Sorry, Doris.

xD.

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