Doris Salcedo: Shibboleth


Tate Modern, London, October 2007 - April 2008

Shibboleth, the installation by Colombian artist Doris Salcedo at Tate Modern, starts as a hairline fracture just inside the entrance to the Turbine Hall, without apparent cause. It zigzags down the slope, gradually deepening and widening like a natural fault in the earth, nearly a foot wide and three feet deep in places, full of the rough edges of the earth pulled apart. Smaller fissures run off in other directions, melding back together, but the main crack continues nearly 550 feet to the far end of the hall where it carries on beneath the wall and, by implication, into the beyond.

But this is a not a natural fault. At a cost of £300,000, this is an extremely expensive human-made division, formed in the very human material of poured concrete. And that’s part of the point. Chasms tear apart the human landscape, separating families, language groups, religions, political factions. We are so used to them that they seem like natural phenomena, an inevitable part of the landscape, no-one’s ‘fault’, although very much a consequence of human life.

And it is a tricky fault. In places it is easy to see that the two halves would fit neatly together again if there were the pressure to make them do so. But in other places there has been a subtle distortion in how the crack is made, and if pressed together the two sides would resist each other and refuse to fit. It has clearly been carefully sculpted. I can’t see how it can have cost £300,000, but neither can I see how such an apparently natural fault has been constructed in the floor. Those two puzzles are presumably connected.

If it were not for the rather carnival atmosphere which the Tate engenders, it would be a great place to sit and meditate. You can read almost any kind of human division into the work, and that is not necessarily a weakness. To me, it evokes one of the great problems of our culture: how does an age of determined scepticism deal with human divisions. Many make a characteristically postmodern leap of logic that, because some human divisions are irrational and wrong, therefore all divisions are irrational and wrong. There is the sense that any division between people is regrettable and should, if possible, be overcome. Especially so with divisions over religion. If faith is only a matter of private belief, of inherited culture or lifestyle choice, it can’t be something to fall out about.

And religion certainly seems to be in the frame here. Conceptual art is about the idea rather than the retinal impact of the work. And as the grandfather of conceptualism, Marcel Duchamp, claimed, the title of the work is therefore all important. Here the title Shibboleth packs a punch.

It is taken from the history of Old Testament Israel (Judges 12), when the Ephraimites attacked the Gileadites to punish them for, as they understood it, attacking the Ammonites without calling for help. The Ephraimites, however, were defeated and sought to withdraw, but the Gileadites seized the fords across the Jordan. Ephraimites trying to get back across the river were stopped and asked if they were Ephraimites. If they denied it, they had to undergo a linguistic test, by saying the word ‘Shibboleth’. Ephraimites obviously struggled to pronounce the ‘sh’ sound, and came out with ‘Sibboleth’. Thus discovered, they were killed – 42,000 of them.

It is a story of appalling, heartless, senseless killing, based a division that is so arbitrary that we don’t even ask what the word ‘Shibboleth’ means. The meaning isn’t important: just the way you pronounce it is enough to get you killed,

But although the story is from the Bible, it is not about a religious conflict. The feud is between two related tribes of Israel, both descended from the line of Joseph, both worshipping the same God. The story in fact supports the thesis of Meic Pearse in his new book The gods of war. In it he argues that, contrary to the current simplistic accusation that without religion there would be no war, the causes of most conflicts are much more mundane human motives such as greed and power. Even the many conflicts between communities of different faiths are often not motivated by those religious differences: religion is interwoven with the culture, and is sometimes invoked to justify political ends, but, with notable exceptions such as some of the Crusades and the wars of Islamic expansion, it is relatively uncommon for conflicts to be directly motivated by religion.

Revisiting the story of the Shibboleth one can’t help thinking of Kosovo, Rwanda, Kenya, and, until recently, Northern Ireland. Those who ought to be co-operative neighbours suddenly turn on one another with horrendous violence. Peaceful coexistence turns to murderous hatred – turning on nothing more substantial than your accent – like a seismic shift, sudden, inexplicable, and with a force that is frighteningly beyond our control or understanding.

The weak part of Salcedo’s work is the wire mesh that is seen to be holding back the inside of the crack at the time. The artist tells us that it refers to the crack opening up the past, revealing the history of colonialism, injustice and oppression. But to me this aspect is not integrated with the naturalness of the fissure, as if the artist had lost confidence in the work and was trying too hard to make a point.

Apart from this, however, like a good work of art, Shibboleth does not preach, and does not prescribe answers. But it does point the viewer in certain directions. Are human divisions to be accepted as inevitable features of life, like the San Andreas Fault, dormant for decades but liable to spring into violent destruction without warning? Are they really so unavoidable? Even the stories of people falling into the crevice at the Tate can be seen as part of this work. At the risk of seeming unsympathetic, you have to be pretty dumb or seriously careless to fall into this hole. It’s not as if you don’t know it’s there.

Looking at Shibboleth as a Christian, I found it offered a powerful meditation on a key issue of our day. The world that yearns for peace and tolerance, albeit a mutated form of tolerance which amounts to the right to be left alone. Our contemporaries stare uncomprehending at those who are willing to kill and die for their convictions. But we Christians are committed to the one who said he had not come to bring peace but the sword; and to a faith that describes itself as the stench of death to some, and the fragrance of life to others.

Walking along this crack, I remembered listening to Tim Keller of Redeemer Church in New York, speaking in London last year. Our society disapproves of people who entrench divisions, who draw lines between themselves and others. But everyone, Keller pointed out, draws lines. Even those who say you shouldn’t draw lines are themselves drawing a line between themselves – the good guys who don’t draw lines – and the others who draw lines. The problem is not with drawing lines: the problem is how you treat those on the other side of the line from you.

And although Christians have not always been good at this, nevertheless it is the gospel that provides the powerful answer that this work, for understandable reasons, gets nowhere near. Divisions are indeed part of the human landscape, because they are rooted in human sinfulness. Indeed, to judge from God’s intervention at Babel, it seems that, as long as we are sinners, a degree of division is in our own interests.

Jesus tells us that he himself brings his own form of division, and we are to stand with him on his side of the line, while loving and blessing those on the other side. But, once you are on his side of the line, you can and should find healing for the even the worst and deepest human divisions we know, between Jew and Gentile, male and female, slave and free, artist and critic.

[Review first published in Third Way magazine.]

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