Dec 12, 2007

shibboleth, at the tate modern


here's a marvellous article from the NYT about shibboleth, doris salcedo's unilever installation at the bankside tate.

"Shibboleth" takes its title from the Old Testament story in which the ability to pronounce the word was used by the victorious Gileadites as a test to identify members of the tribe of Ephraim who were trying to sneak back into their home territory. Those who couldn't say it correctly were revealed as Ephraimites and killed. The work is the eighth in the popular Unilever Series on the Tate's enormous ground floor. It is not the first to raise safety concerns: the previous installation, which involved huge tubes that people slid through, was said to have needed extra cushioning after some members of the opening-night crowd were catapulted too precipitously onto the floor.

The other day the visitors seemed filled with wonder, not only at the artwork's grand gesture but also at the mildness of the hazard it represents. The first thing you see when you enter the Turbine Hall are signs saying, "Warning: Danger of Falling," illustrated with a picture of a stick figure who has tripped on something and is about to fall down. Also, the crack is hard to miss, there on its own in the middle of the floor, surrounded by people taking pictures of it, peering down into it, stepping across it and walking alongside it.

"The exhibit is all about the crack," said Peter Girard, 38, an American tourist. "It's a really big crack. What are you looking at if you're not looking at the crack?" (He was not perhaps the greatest enthusiast for the installation's artistic merit. "It's a real shame that London's infrastructure has fallen apart to the extent that there are giant cracks in one of its newest museums," he said.)

Two visitors from the Netherlands, Manon Straatman and her husband, Victor, were equally mystified by the perils of "Shibboleth." "Maybe someone walks into the museum and isn't interested in what's in the museum," Mrs. Straatman mused. Mr. Straatman said the crack was modest in its width and depth, hardly the sort of gaping abyss into which you might plummet to your doom. "Oh look, there's someone falling now," he said suddenly.

Indeed there was: A woman nearby had caught her foot in the crack and pitched awkwardly forward, ending up sprawled on the floor. The woman, who later identified herself as Anne McNicholas, a 51-year-old medical researcher from New Zealand, said she had arranged to meet some friends in the gallery and had not been looking where she was going. "I just didn't see it," she said. She was not impressed by the exhibit, particularly in light of her injuries: a nasty scrape-cum-bruise on her right knee and an even nastier one on her left shin. "I don't think it should be there at all." she said. "It's not America," she added pointedly, "so I won't sue."

Word of Ms. McNicholas's mishap prompted a discussion among visitors of whether it might be wise to erect barriers around the exhibit, or seal it with some kind of Plexiglass-type material. No, was the consensus. "I think that would completely ruin the excitement of it," said Rachel Laine, whose 2-year-old son, Charlie, was peering into the crack, searching for crocodiles. "The whole concept of why people are coming here is to see a huge concrete floor with a crack in it."

Mr. Lord, 54, the visitor who was not sure what the piece meant, pronounced himself thrilled that it allowed for the possibility of injury, however remote. "I applaud it," said Mr. Lord, a film animator. "In England the words 'health and safety' have become a catchphrase, a standing joke of things you can't do." As for Uros Vasiljevic, a 29-year-old businessman visiting from Serbia, he said that people should just take their chances.

"Art is dangerous sometimes," he said.

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