Shibboleth is an installation by the Colombian artist Doris Salcedo at the Tate Modern gallery in London. You can see a slideshow with more pictures of it here. The Tate Modern is located on the south bank of the Thames in a monstrous building that was once the Bankside Power Station; its main space is known as Turbine Hall, and Shibboleth begins as a tiny crack at one end of the building. It then runs jaggedly, getting wider and deeper as it goes along, the full 550-foot length of the hall. I haven’t seen it, and probably won’t — it’ll be removed next April — but from the photos it looks quite striking indeed.

There have been any number of articles in the London papers speculating on how it was made: apparently Salcedo worked on it in Colombia for a whole year before transporting it to London, but this makes no sense to anyone, since it looks like it was just dug out of the Turbine Hall’s floor. Salcedo is steadfastly silent on this matter. She has, however, been quite forthcoming about the artwork’s meaning: “It represents borders, the experience of immigrants, the experience of segregation, the experience of racial hatred,” she said. “The space which illegal immigrants occupy is a negative space. And so this piece is a negative space.”


Many years ago in The Painted Word Tom Wolfe wrote about the rise of a mode of visual art which is artful only by virtue of its verbal meaning: “Modern Art has become completely literary: the paintings and other works exist only to illustrate the text” (italics Wolfe’s, of course). He deplored the gradual disappearance of genuine artistic technique and its replacement by something purely linguistic, descriptive — the whole book is written in mockery of artworks that can’t be identified as artworks until someone tells you what they mean.

Shibboleth strikes me as just the opposite of what Wolfe deplores. It’s visually fascinating, even stunning: it draws the eye as any true work of visual art should. And then the artist tells you what it means and any interest the work might have had fades from view. Turns out it’s yet another restatement of a deadeningly clichéd and mindlessly simplistic political point. After learning that it’s hard to recapture the visual dynamic Shibboleth truly possesses.

How sad, then, that Salcedo is so reticent about the technique and so forthcoming about the meaning. If she had decided to reverse those polarities Shibboleth might be a major and memorable work of art.