One of the first things I did in London this week was head over to Tate Modern, where the newest site specific work in the Tate’s vast Turbine Hall, the Superbowl of contemporary art, is Shibboleth, by the Colombian artist Doris Salcedo. It consists of a crack that runs the length of the Hall’s grey concrete floor, widening and deepening as it goes.
As I mentioned a few weeks ago, in San Francisco there’s a similar piece by Andy Goldsworthy that runs up to the front door of the De Young Museum. Salcedo’s has more visual drama than Goldsworthy’s, which is more a hairline fracture than a crack. Her’s is bigger, darker and it courses through that stupendous Turbine Hall space. But she’s made the mistake of burdening it with a specific interpretation that short circuits any wider response from you. She’s let everyone know that it’s meant to represent the human divide of racism. That turns Shibboleth into a political cartoon, which not only confines its meanings but also happens to insist on a “meaning” that the appearance of the piece barely supports.
The crack could have been a way to speak to prevailing anxieties about cracks in the empire, or as a fever chart of whatever other fears are at large these days. Salcedo’s school marmish explanation left me with nothing more to do than nod my head and agree that racism was bad, and, having grasped her classroom point, move on to the Louise Bourgeois show upstairs, where I was pretty sure nothing would be so simple.