The message behind Salcedo’s Shibboleth is frustratingly elusive, says Andrew Mead
Doris Salcedo: Shibboleth, at Tate Modern, London SE1, until 6 April 2008. www.tate.org.uk
Back in 1999, when Tate Modern was still under construction, the Colombian artist Doris Salcedo had a show in the Tate’s Millbank building, and it generated a real sense of disquiet. A long wooden table, which at first seemed suited to an austere display of minimalism, was threaded with human hair – in Salcedo’s world, the domestic quickly turns nasty. Another of her works was a wardrobe filled with concrete, which brought to mind Rachel Whiteread’s casts of mundane space and objects – casts that often look like tombs. But while you couldn’t miss the disquiet in that 1999 show, you would never have guessed Salcedo’s supposed subject – the effects of civil war in Colombia. You would have had to read the catalogue to find that out.
Eight years on, that’s still the case now Salcedo has filled Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall with her installation Shibboleth: a fissure that begins just inside the entrance, deepens and widens as it proceeds diagonally down the ramp, forks right to miss the main staircase, then surges erratically to the end. Seen from above it looks like the quivering line of a seismograph; close up the sides of the cleft are uneven, like a rockface, and embedded with bits of chain-link fence. Of course you wonder how it’s all been done, but Salcedo and the Tate are keeping coy – a decision that’s good for publicity, as three inconclusive pages in the Guardian (10.10.07) and many column inches elsewhere confirm.
The piece does have a real visceral impact. You think of earth tremors, threats of collapse, perhaps the ponderous shifting of tectonic plates. But unless prompted by the handout that explains Salcedo’s intentions, would you ever conclude that ‘this negative space represents the area occupied by those that have been left out of the history of modernity’? I doubt it. Still, at least Shibboleth has some seriousness to it – badly needed after the last installation in the turbine hall, when Carsten Holler’s slides turned the Tate into a raucous playground.
Resume: Doris Salcedo’s installation is certainly effective – but probably not in the way that she intends