A few years back, the Colombian artist Doris Salcedo created a giant (167 metre) crack across the floorspace in the Turbine Hall of the Tate which she called “Shibboleth.”
It created no little stir at the time, and was very nearly cordoned off by the Tate’s Health & Safety consultants (and did actually result in fifteen accidents to unwary art-lovers).
But what does it “mean”?
The artist’s explanation was this: “It represents borders, the experience of immigrants, the experience of segregation, the experience of racial hatred. It is the experience of a Third World person coming into the heart of Europe. For example, the space which illegal immigrants occupy is a negative space. And so this piece is a negative space.”
These themes stem from Salcedo’s own personal history. Members of her own family were among the many people who have disappeared in politically troubled Colombia. Much of her work deals with the fact that, while the death of a loved one can be mourned, their disappearance leaves “an unbearable emptiness.”
Salcedo was the first artist to change the physical building of a gallery, in order to tell her story. Salcedo used this piece to give voice to the victims of all the injustices that have separated people and armed them against one another. Rather than fill Turbine Hall with an installation, she opened up a subterranean wound in the floor that stretched the entire length of the former power station. The concrete walls of the crevice were ruptured by a steel mesh fence, creating a tension between elements that resisted each other and at the same time depended on one another. The installation began as a thin, almost invisible line at the main entrance and gradually widened into a chasm at the far end. This design was meant to evoke the brokenness and separateness of post-colonial cultures especially in her homeland of Colombia.
Shibboleth raised questions about the interaction of ideological foundations on which Western notions of modernity are built and questions about racism and colonialism that underlie the modern world. “The history of racism,” Salcedo said, “runs parallel to the history of modernity and is its untold dark side.”
With Shibboleth, Salcedo focused attention on the existence of a large, socially excluded underclass present in all societies. Salcedo said that breaking open the floor of Turbine Hall symbolized a fracture in civilsation itself. This urged viewers to confront uncomfortable truths about the ideology of racism.
Hence the title. Even the word “Shibboleth” conjures up an ancient story about the politics of fear.
The term originates from the Hebrew word shibbólet (שִׁבֹּלֶת), which literally meant the part of a plant containing grains, (like an ear of corn) or, in a different context, “stream, torrent” or a cut in the rock where the river gushes. But the pronunciation of the term informed a contemporary listener of where the speaker come from (much like deciding whether someone came from either London or Leeds based on their pronunciation of the word “bath”).
In Judges 12, after the inhabitants of Gilead inflicted a military defeat upon the invading tribe of Ephraim (around 1370–1070 BC), the surviving Ephraimites tried to cross the River Jordan back into their home territory and the Gileadites secured the river’s fords to stop them. In order to identify and kill these Ephraimites, the Gileadites told each suspected survivor to say the word shibboleth. The Ephraimite dialect did not contain the “sh” sound and so those who pronounced the word as sibboleth were identified as Ephraimites and summarily dealt with. Here’s the account:
“The Gileadites captured the fords of the Jordan leading to Ephraim, and whenever a survivor of Ephraim said, ‘Let me cross over,’ the men of Gilead asked him, ‘Are you an Ephraimite?’ If he replied, ‘No,’ 6 they said, ‘All right, say “Shibboleth”.’ If he said, ‘Sibboleth’, because he could not pronounce the word correctly, they seized him and killed him at the fords of the Jordan. Forty-two thousand Ephraimites were killed at that time.”
And of course, this ancient narrative is painfully contemporary. We fostered some boys from Kosovo who told us of growing up in small towns where Orthodox Christians and Muslims lived side by side and built community together, until that crack somehow opened, and deepened and widened until the day when a nightmare of bloodletting erupted, based on the shibboleth of religion. Twenty years on, the scars remain.
Who built these cracks?
The thing is, all human beings bear God’s image and must be respected for what each person is. Therefore, no external description of one’s being, whether based on race, ethnicity, gender or sexual orientation, can properly be used as the basis for either rejection or discrimination.
Mother Teresa said: “If you judge people, you have no time to love them.”