Did she vandalise the floor of Tate Modern? Or did she remove the floor first? Or maybe just lay a new one on top of the old? Surveyors, structural engineers and others have been taken along to inspect it, with no firm, or with conflicting, results. The management are not saying. It seems that whatever the method used, its secrecy is an intrinsic constituent of the metaphor that is (must be, surely!) Doris Salcedo's "Shibboleth". She says that it represents the fissure into which drop (or is it "are dropped"?) all the oppressed victims of racial hatred. It represents divided humanity.
With the best will in the world, you cannot get any of that from the work itself. You might have read something like that into it, it's almost a cliche now, anyway, but you could not possibly get it from the work itself. More than anything, what it seemed to me to symbolize when I saw the first press photographs of it, was the poverty or triviality of the concepts that so often lie behind (and should be driving) concept art. Here I must confess that I have not seen Shibboleth for myself, but I am confirmed in my view by the fact that Salcedo (or the gallery authorities) found it necessary to hand out leaflets to visitors "explaining" the work to them. The problem is, I think, that to be successful, a work of concept art must offer both a striking image and a richness of content. It is by no means easy to combine these two, and (usually) it is content that is sacrificed. Salcedo has herself has insisted that it is the meaning of the work (not the process) that is important. That being so, it would seem to me that the work has failed her own test, in that, without the leaflets to "explain" it, the meaning is not clear, its significance is not accessible.
But Shibboleth has been on display at Tate Modern since the 9th of October, so why am I only now making it part of my blog? Deciding, a few days ago, that it was high time I reacquainted myself with the poems of Edwin Muir, I took down his: Collected Poems and as chance would have it, opened the book at The Refugees:
A crack ran through our hearthstone long ago,
And from the fissure we watched gently grow
The tame domesticated danger,
Yet lived in comfort in our haunted rooms.
Till came the stranger
And the great and little dooms.
Muir is in my view a poet undeservedly neglected these days. The Refugees is not uniformly good, yet reading that opening verse again I was immediately reminded of what I had seen and read of The Shibboleth, and struck by the contrast between the two. Impossible, of course, to directly compare a work of visual art with a literary one (though not all would agree), yet what can perhaps be compared are the feelings aroused by them, the insight given, the thoughts provoked. Salcedo is not working in isolation, but within a well-established if not exactly popular tradition. Within the last week I have come across images of an installation (shall we call it?) by two American artists, Dan Havel and Dean Ruck, in which they punched a hole in the wall of a house, and not just in the wall, but right through the house and out the other side, creating a sort of tunnel. Meanwhile, Zhang Dali (good name), the Beijingi artist, is spray painting outlines of his head, magnified to fill the space available, on the walls of houses and then knocking out the head-shaped hole, through which people may see the emerging shape of a city being regenerated. Somehow, both these ideas seem to me to be more fertile than Shibboleth.
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