February 2008, Doris Salcedo @ the Tate Modern


Installation view, Doris Salcedo, Shibboleth, 2007,
courtesy Tate Modern

Doris Salcedo, Shibboleth, at the Tate Modern

Last year, patrons of the Tate Modern were queuing to experience the world through Carsten Höller’s slides, but this year art goers are carefully navigating and contemplating Doris Salcedo’s Shibboleth, the newest commission in the Tate Modern’s Unilever Series.

Unilever gave the Tate Modern 2.5 million pounds over eight years for an annual installation in the Turbine Hall as part of Unilever’s commitment to National Arts Organizations to develop young talent and enhance the community. Salcedo’s work is the eighth commission in this series and the first work to directly be a part of the architecture of Turbine Hall

Doris Salcedo was born in Columbia in 1958 where she received her BFA at Universidad Jorge Tadeo Lozano and later her MFA at NYU. Her work is greatly informed by her experiences in Columbia and often includes textiles, furniture, and domestic materials. The significance of her works is heavily based on the desolation of past events and the ideas surrounding the burden of history.

Shibboleth is a 167m concrete crack in the floor of the Turbine Hall starting as a hairline crack and widening into a gap of several inches. The void of the crack is a cast from a rock wall from her native country, and a chain link fence once used as a divider between two nations is imbedded inside the crevice over the rock. It took over a year to make offsite and six weeks to install in the institution. This aggressive looking installation threatens viewers and reminds us of how memories of the past continue to claim innocent casualties considering how Shibboleth has claimed a few victims to minor falls and cuts at the Tate Modern.

 Installation view, Doris Salcedo, Shibboleth, 2007,
 courtesy Tate Modern

The work physically divides the viewing audience just as Salcedo examines how histories of racism and inequality have divided countries in the past. The viewer looks down into a deep abyss of darkness and is asked to examine his or her own discomforts with separation as it has been and as it is today.

Shibboleth acts as a provocative contrast to the polished art institutional context. Aside from the prescribed meaning of the work, it can also be viewed in the larger context of the art institution. In this light, the crack could imply divisions in the art world, the role of the institution, or divisions in art through Modernity to Contemporary culture.

Salcedo chose an interesting title for the work. “Shibboleth” is a word used to indicate one’s origin, and identify members of a group. The origin of “Shibboleth” is found in chapter twelve of the book of Judges, where the people of Gilead defeated the Ephriam tribe. The remaining Ephriamites tried to return to their territory after defeat; however, the Gileadites stopped them and put each refugee to a test. If the Ephramites could pronounce the “sh” they proved they were true Gileadites as the Ephramites did not have that sound in their dialect. The foundation of this word began between two feuding nations and was used to expose members of an outsider group. Currently, the term is still used to distinguish certain people or practices from others. Salcedo’s prolific title, Shibboleth, roots the monumental work in a history of discrimination, power, and separation.

Nicholas Serota, the Director of the Tate, discusses the longevity of the work to the BBC, “There is a crack, there is a line, and eventually there will be a scar and that scar will remain” Salcedo’s work will forever act as a reminder of how experiences of the past leave lasting imprints.

Shibboleth is on view in the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall through April 6, 2008.

The Tate Modern

Susannah Haworth

Susannah Haworth is from the Washington D.C. area and moved to London to pursue her MA degree in Contemporary Art at the Sotheby’s Institute of Art.  She graduated from Dickinson College in Pennsylvania in 2006 with a BA in Art and Art History.  Susannah recently managed the international art fair, Year_07 Art Projects and currently works at the Keith Talent Gallery. 


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