Here's what Tate Modern have to tell you about Doris Salcado's Shibboleth - the crack in the floor along the Turbine Hall - on their website:
Doris Salcedo’s Shibboleth is the first work to intervene directly in the fabric of the Turbine Hall. Rather than fill this iconic space with a conventional sculpture or installation, Salcedo has created a subterranean chasm that stretches the length of the Turbine Hall. The concrete walls of the crevice are ruptured by a steel mesh fence, creating a tension between these elements that resist yet depend on one another. By making the floor the principal focus of her project, Salcedo dramatically shifts our perception of the Turbine Hall’s architecture, subtly subverting its claims to monumentality and grandeur. Shibboleth asks questions about the interaction of sculpture and space, about architecture and the values it enshrines, and about the shaky ideological foundations on which Western notions of modernity are built.
In particular, Salcedo is addressing a long legacy of racism and colonialism that underlies the modern world. A ‘shibboleth’ is a custom, phrase or use of language that acts as a test of belonging to a particular social group or class. By definition, it is used to exclude those deemed unsuitable to join this group.
‘The history of racism’, Salcedo writes, ‘runs parallel to the history of modernity, and is its untold dark side’. For hundreds of years, Western ideas of progress and prosperity have been underpinned by colonial exploitation and the withdrawal of basic rights from others. Our own time, Salcedo is keen to remind us, remains defined by the existence of a huge socially excluded underclass, in Western as well as post-colonial societies.
In breaking open the floor of the museum, Salcedo is exposing a fracture in modernity itself. Her work encourages us to confront uncomfortable truths about our history and about ourselves with absolute candidness, and without self-deception.
Inspired to check it out? No, nor was I, but I figured I shouldn't pass judgement without seeing the work for myself, so I headed down there this morning. Would it be as dreary as it sounded, or was it going to be one of those installations whose power was only apparent, as it were, in the flesh?
It was even worse than I thought. God knows I didn't expect much, but it didn't even live up to that. A subterranean chasm it ain't. At it's deepest it's barely two feet down, never more than about six to nine inches across. Mostly it's much smaller. It's really, truly, of no intrinsic interest. It's a crack running down the length of the Turbine Hall.
Some people clearly like it - or claim to. Here's what the Times art critic, Rachel Campbell-Johnson, has to say:
Salcedo is a fundamentally political artist. A Colombian, she grew up witnessing the atrocities that occurred in her country during the undeclared civil war. Her past works have spoken of torture and abduction, murders and mass burials.
Now, in Shibboleth, her latest work, she sets out to articulate the conflicts that divide us. Tate Modern, a triumphalist monument to our modern Western culture, is quite literally riven in two by an artwork that provokes us to question the very foundations of our ways of thought.
This piece is powerfully literal. It disrupts complacency. As you peer into a chasm that looks as if it might threaten to set the whole massive edifice above you tumbling, it is hard not to feel a slight frisson. But the point of the work is less its immediate impact than a slow-burning mental response. Salcedo would like to prise apart accepted patterns of thought. Through an installation that is as much about destruction as creation, she sets out to expose fault lines. Shibboleth is less about a crack than the ideas that leak out of it.
One can disagree with a critic while maintaining some respect for their point of view, but this is embarrassing nonsense. Disrupts complacency? A chasm that looks as if it might threaten to set the whole massive edifice above you tumbling? A slow-burning mental response? No, no, and no. It disrupts nothing, it threatens nothing, it stimulates not at all.
But these are the bleatings of a schoolgirl compared to the leaflet handed to you as you go in. These are the professionals: the genuine voice of contemporary artspeak. It's a classic. Here's a taster:
First, and most obviously, the contemplative nature of such a venue allows the gesture to resonate in its widest sense. Walking down Salcedo's incised line, particularly if you know about her previous work, might well prompt a broader consideration of power's divisive operations as encoded in the brutal narrative of colonialism, their unhappy aftermaths in postcolonial nations, and in the stand-off between rich and poor, northern and southern hemispheres.
It might, on the other hand, prompt a broader consideration about the fatuous assignation of entirely arbitrary but modish political concerns to an uninteresting modification to the floor of an art gallery.
It gets better:
If Shibboleth speaks openly to our moment, it is also concerned with an archaeological sense of history. Indeed, Salcedo infers that the two are fundamentally connected. Look down into the crack, and you see not Tate Modern's foundations, but a carefully constructed concrete cast formation, embedded with chain-link wire fence. For Salcedo, the crack reveals a "colonial and imperial history [that] has been disregarded, marginalised or simply obliterated...the history of racism, running parallel to the history of modernity and ...it's untold dark side."
There's more - lots more - about the original Tate Modern building, Bankside power station, and how "Salcedo reconnects the building to these colonial and postcolonial histories, to the operations of power and the ideological creation of artificial notions of difference and otherness", but I'll spare you all the details. You've no doubt got the flavour.
Sadly, it's all too clear that the work itself is in no way of sufficient quality or power to justify this nonsense. The concerns with racism, postcolonialism, difference, whatever, are all contrived and arbitrary impositions seeking to impart a spurious relevance to a self-indulgent piece of banality. If meanings have to be assigned, why these? Why not say it's about the shortcomings of a two-party system, or the Risorgimento, or, more pertinently, the need to get a proper structural survey done before you buy a house? We know why not, of course: these aren't the kind of issues that resonate with the type of people who run art galleries.
But why on earth do we have to put up with this verbiage? Why do they insist on telling us how we should react, what we should be feeling? I've posted about this before, about what a joyless place Tate Modern is, how they encourage a mindless subservience to their - if I could borrow some of their terminology - hegemonic discourse. In this case - though not of course in the case of many of the works in their permanent collection - the answer's clear: because the piece itself is worthless, and needs pumping up with distracting nonsense so that we don't see how dreary it truly is. But it's part of a more general concern that, when it comes to art, we should never be left alone to make up our own minds.
A phrase picked almost at random: Her work encourages us to confront uncomfortable truths about our history and about ourselves with absolute candidness, and without self-deception. There's nothing I don't hate about that sentence: the self-righteousness, the pomposity, the utter witlessness of it. It means nothing. It relates to nothing. What's that absolute candidness doing there? Without self-deception? It's complete nonsense smugly preening itself on its importance. I hate it. I'd like to take whoever wrote it, stuff them inside the bloody crack, and jump up and down on them. That's how much I hate it.
And what's their main message in all this? - you know, with all this racism, postcolonialism, difference stuff. It's that we're meant to feel bad about ourselves. Bad because we're Westerners, bad because our history is all about being colonialist bullies. Bad bad bad, guilty guilty guilty. That's what it's all about now: the purpose of great art is to make you feel bad. Also, it encourages you not to live in the moment, not to study what's in front of you, not to think and feel for yourself. It encourages you not to trust your senses, but to believe what you're told: to trust those voices in your earpiece as you wander zombie-like round the gallery, telling you where to look, how to react, what to think.
Do I give the impression I didn't enjoy myself? Oh but I did. When I came out onto the Southbank it was a beautiful autumn morning, with St Paul's dome opposite, sunlight glinting on the Thames, people walking past - the world in all its glory. I felt like I used to feel coming out of school. Free at last.