20 October, 2007



"Shibboleth" is a ragged fissure stretching across the vast ramp of the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern gallery.

My attitude to modern art, and in particular the self-important sub-genre called "installations", is that it can be enjoyable if you do not attempt to take it seriously. Sometimes it can be quite fun, like Gormley's figures that were recently spread around unlikely sites in central London, or the 30-foot figure that appeared to be swimming through the earth near the glass testicle recently. Taken simply as a spectacle, "Shibboleth" is quite impressive, breaking up the emptiness of the Turbine Hall ramp in a striking way, and I am quite happy to appreciate it on that level.

Apparently, bourgeois middle-aged middle-class bigot that I am, I have got it all wrong. According to an interview with the artist (installer?) Doris Salcedo, in a handout written for Tate Modern by Time Out staff, it is a metaphor for racism.
In essence, this crevice represents the divisions between creed, colour, class and culture that maintain our social order, precariously balanced as it is on the precipice of a chaotic void of hatred. 'It's about racism and segregation,' says Salcedo, and about inscribing a perspective in the museum that was not already there. The museum is the centre, the very heart of high, refined European culture. This culture is what the right-wingers are trying to 'save' and what the immigrants are jeopardising.'

Shibboleth is also a specific comment on London, a place we like to think of as multicultural, inclusive and ethnically diverse. 'You have on one level a society that considers itself homogeneous, but I've been wandering around, visiting estates near here, and the north/south divide is very evident.' Indeed the two halves of the Turbine Hall represent the two sides of the Thames; the haves in the City of London on one side and the have-nots residing in Southwark and beyond.

The gap also crosses generations and harks back to the influx of immigrants who came here to boost this country's industry, at the same time as the turbines housed in Gilbert Scott's original Bankside power station fired up in 1947.
Well swipe me. So much latent significance in a simple piece of licensed vandalism. I am suitably chastened.

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