Friday, October 12, 2007

Crack Addicts

It's only been there a few days, but already Colombian conceptual artist Doris Salcedo's installation at Tate Modern's Turbine Hall (left) has generated plenty of coverage about how dangerous it is, plus noisy speculation about how it was made, but very little about what it might signify.

Meanwhile, UBS — the bank that sponsors the other series of major Tate displays upstairs — has seen a huge Northern Rock-size crack appear in its own balance sheet.

Shibboleth, as Salcedo's piece is called, is basically an earthquake-like fissure running the length of the Turbine Hall. It starts by the entrance as a hairline crack in the concrete floor and then meanders down the sloping ramp, widening steadily as it goes, breaking off here and there into tributary cracks, and continuing until it finally disappears beneath the wall at the far end of the hall.

At its widest, the span is about 10in — not much, but evidently enough for two or three people to have already 'fallen in', according to news reports. Nobody has been seriously injured (yet), but it's only a matter of time as works like this (and Carsten Höller's slides) will always attract the Munchausen Syndromers.

The Guardian assembled some architects and builders on site and invited them to speculate on how Doris had done it. Their professional suggestions were credible enough but no more so than those vocalised by members of the public when I visited last Tuesday. Then a local builder popped up and blew the gaff. The Tate had been trying to keep it all a secret, but this guy had been on site during the installation and had seen it all through a crack in the tarpaulin. Cat out of bag.

But does it matter how it was made? Artists can slice and dice buildings any way they like if they put their minds to it, as Richard Wilson demonstrated a few months ago.

If you get down close enough you can see a wire mesh embedded in the sides of the Shibboleth gorge — which at its deepest is three or four feet deep. It looks structural, like an armature to stabilize the concrete, but it's an integral part of the work's meaning.

The Tate provides visitors on arrival with a lengthy printed essay pamphlet explaining what the crack's all about. This is what contemporary art galleries do these days. There's always a worry that the more complex conceptual works will leave people utterly mystified, but also a risk that explanatory texts will over-interpret or over-determine, foreclosing the process of imaginative engagement and impairing the visitor's enjoyment.

The dark side of colonialism
Salcedo has suggested that Shibboleth alludes to "a colonial and imperial history that has been disregarded, marginalised, or simply obliterated ... the history of racism, running parallel to the history of modernity and ... its untold dark side." I'm not sure Doris's cracked floor is entirely successful in this precise respect, but perhaps visitors will connect her expressed intentions with their own experience of the work and take those resonances away with them.

There is a certain irony in a major work at one London gallery drawing attention to the disregarded, marginalised and obliterated colonial past, while other museums in London continue proudly to display the material fruits of that same colonial exploitation as if the oft-cited shibboleth of "that was then, this is now" is enough to justify it.

The wire mesh obviously evokes political issues such as the Israel/Palestine divide as well as regimes of incarceration and state retribution — perhaps most obviously and topically, Abu Ghraib. This is a rather more subtle allusion to those human rights abuses than the recent powerful Abu Ghraib paintings by Salcedo's compatriot, Fernando Botero, recently gifted to the Berkeley Museum.

The Turbine Hall may be too big for its own good. Its overpowering size has given birth to a number of projects in the Unilever series that in their attempts to wrestle with the Piranesian proportions of the space end up being too grandiose and overblown to have any lasting resonance other than as entertaining spectacles. It was clearly all too much, for example, for Rachel Whiteread and the wrong place for Bruce Nauman.

Needless to say, the critics are lining up to point out that the crack in the floor has been done before. Arts Journal blogger Tyler Green recalls how Andy Goldsworthy cracked a courtyard in San Francisco. For me it recalled Gordon Matta-Clark's interventions into buildings (as well as Richard Wilson's recent architectural incision Turning the Place Over in Liverpool, but also something of the heroic earthworks projects of the late '60s and early '70s by Michael Heizer, Walter de Maria et al. They dug their big trenches in the Nevada desert and other wildernesses. Doris has torn a bit of the city asunder.

One suspects that as the crack addicts flock to Tate Modern in the coming weeks and as the idiots fall in or trip over it, some of Shibboleth's more subtle allusions will dissolve in a predictable welter of tabloid wingeing.

As a site-specific work it's one of the best things the Turbine Hall has hosted, up there with Anish Kapoor's Marsyas (2002-03). As I left the Tate on Tuesday I found myself singing that Leonard Cohen line: "There is a crack, a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in."

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