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November 06, 2007

Christie Davies looks at three massive works of art parked outside our art galleries and is amazed at British art galleries' gullibility and moved by the sensibility of the Chinese: Sculptures by Doris Salcedo, Louise Bourgeois and Zhang Huan

Posted by Christie Davies

Shibboleth - Doris Salcedo
The Unilever Series
Tate Modern, Turbine Hall
9th October 2007 - 6th April 2008

The Destruction of the Father - Louise Bourgeois
Tate Modern
10th October 2007 - 20th January 2008

Three Legged Buddha - Zhang Huan
Royal Academy of Arts, Annenberg Courtyard
8th October 2007 - December 2008

It has become the custom to install monsters outside our art exhibitions. Maman is the big spider outside the Tate Modern, matching Louise Bourgeois's exhibition within, Doris Salcedo's Shibboleth is a long crack in the floor of the Tate's Turbine Hall and Zhuang Huan's Three Legged Buddha towers over the Annenberg Courtyard of the RA.

Doris Salcedo has gouged a sizeable fistula in the base of the Tate Modern, a long fissure snaking across the concrete, one that runs the entire length of the Tate Modern's Turbine Hall. It is called Shibboleth. It isn't a shibboleth; it is a crack in the floor. It is said to reveal the deep divisions of and caused by colonial and imperial history. It doesn't. It is a crack in the floor.

From high above it is just a thin line and as you watch the people examining it you feel like a Jain with his ahimsa brush and mask trying to feed grains of sugar to the ants scurrying in the gaps in the pavements of Mumbai. But it is still a crack in the floor.

It is a meaningless crack in the concrete like the one I saw in the railway station in Skopje after the earthquake there. I suppose you could say that the Skopje fissure I saw symbolised the marginalisation of the Macedonians and the splitting of their country between the arrogant Serbs, the rapacious Bulgars and worst of all the oppressive Greeks, who even today deny the Macedonians, the true heirs of Alexander, the right to choose the name, the symbols, the flag, and the map of their proud new independent Republic of Macedonia. A moral crack would have shouted long live greater Macedon, one single, united home for all Macedonians!

But it didn't. The crack was caused by an earthquake, a muttering of tectonic plates. It was just a crack in the concrete, like this one. A crack is a crack is a crack.

Shibboleth is a work of art for the ages, for the ages 4 to 7. It is just wide enough for children of that age to wedge their feet in it. Sooner or later one of them will get stuck and have to have a foot amputated and there will be a story about it in the Daily Mirror. If it is an ethnic minority child there will be an editorial in The Grauniad about inequality and why ethnic minority children's feet are more obese and more likely to get irretrievably wedged in cracks. But it is still just a crack in the floor.

Then a skinny Scottish child, a scrawny Sawney will by mischance drop a coin right down the crack and fall in and vanish altogether while trying to retrieve it, The fire brigade will widen the crack to the dimensions of a canyon to find him and restore him to his family, only for his father to demand "Whaur's his bonnet?"

True, the gallery does have a warning notice saying "Please Watch Your Step" and "Please Keep Children Under Supervision" - but is this enough to satisfy EU directive 666 HILFE1933/45/AUSECO1871URS, which says that all cracks longer than 10 metres should carry warning notices at intervals of 2 metres in at least 3 different Eurolanguages? If this exhibition were held in Berlin there would be a solid Wall of signs Betreten verboten + Betreten verboten + Betreten verboten……Betreten verboten, or if you prefer Σ Betreten verboten, along the entire length of the crack and another line of signs set closer to the ground for children to read, saying Nur für Erwachsene.

For reasons of health and hygiene there should also be the warnings Dėfense de Cracher and Dėfense d'Uriner for those who cannot resist cracks and corners. We must become good Europeans in the face of what, according to Salcedo, is an anti-European wise-crack.

Salcedo has called her crack Shibboleth to signify the unjust exclusion of the non-Europeans, the ill-favoured ones. The word comes from an incident in the Book of Judges, describing how the Ephraimites were captured by their enemies the Gileadites as they tried to retreat across the River Jordon and were asked to say the word Shibboleth which begins with a sh sound as in Shin Bet, Shabak שב"כ. This sorted out friends who were able to pronounce it correctly from the Ephraimite enemy whose speech lacked a "sh" sound and who on detection were executed.

And the Gileadites took the passages of Jordan before the Ephraimites: and it was so, that when those Ephraimites which were escaped said, Let me go over; that the men of Gilead said unto him, Art thou an Ephraimite?

If he said, Nay; Then said they unto him, Say now Shibboleth: and he said Sibboleth: for he could not frame to pronounce it right. Then they took him, and slew him at the passages of Jordan: and there fell at that time of the Ephraimites forty and two thousand.

Judges 12: 5-6

The Dutch used a similar trick when infiltrated by German spies from Moffrika in World War II. Germans are completely invisible in the Netherlands, being identical in appearance, bearing, manners, outlook and temperament to the Dutch. It is impossible to tell them apart. So the Hollanders would force them to try to say the name of the town Scheveningen, once the site of a famous naval battle between Britain and the United Provinces and later of a notorious Dutch nudist beach.

Scheveningen has a Batavian guttural at the beginning of the word that is quite beyond the adam's apple of anyone who is not Dutch. It was a dirty trick, a bit like asking an Essex Girl on holiday in Dynbych y Pysgod to try to say chwarae teg, not at all fair play. The Germans would sound the sch as it is sounded in the English words schedule or schlep or schlock or the German Hier stehe ich, ich heisse Hirsch - and would be promptly drowned without trial in the nearest dijk. Rough justice, Dutch justice. But so what? It is still just a crack in the floor.

We are told officially that the great Salcedocrack represents the great schism of modernity for, or so we are informed "Modernity is seen as an exclusively European event" which created a chasm between Europe and the rest of the world.

Yes, the rise of modern science and capitalism, the Enlightenment and the industrial revolution did all begin here in Europe, transforming a static world. It is a rather different kind of gap than that between two murderous Israelite factions differing only in a detail of pronunciation. There is no point in non-Europeans whingeing about it or liberals coming out with a lot of post-colonial nonsense. Rather they should read Max Weber and ask "why Europe?".

Anyway now the Hindus and the Chinese are rapidly overtaking Europe and the Japanese did so some time ago. What is European about that? Señora Salcedo's native Colombia still comes from the wrong side of the cracks, but there is no mileage in blaming those people in the world who are part of European culture or are of European descent. The problems of the body politic in Latin America come from the mouth not the Cólon.

The Tate Modern has muddied the issue even further by wringing their hands about being modern and in effect saying "We are modern Western Art, we are guilty, we deserve to have a crack in our floor, please, please knock a crack in our floor till it shakes the foundations of our very being". But the Tate Modern is not modern in the same sense that Monsanto or Framatome are. The artworks therein are modern only in the way that postmodern is more modern than modern, that is to say it comes later than what went before. Salcedo and the Taters all understand about as much about the essence of modernity as that muddled moderniser from Eton, Dai Cameron.

Meanwhile on the other side of the Tate is a bloody great ugly female spider, the size of a house, by Louise Bourgeois, called Maman (Mother). It must have just eaten its mate after copulation, as many female spiders do, as shown by the sac of fertilised eggs hanging from its abdomen high above the heads of the crowd.

The spider is said to be somehow connected with Louise Bourgeois's difficult childhood. Yet she had a perfectly normal 1920s French childhood living at home with her father and mother and her father's teenaged mistress. It may seem odd to us but this kind of informal polygamy is common enough in Latin countries, as indeed it used to be in Imperial China in the good old days of concubinage and Japan in the time of Yanagiwara Naruko.

What may have bothered her was that her father's mistress, Sadie Gordon Richmond, who was also Louise's governess and tutor, was English and rode a powerful motorcycle. It was a horrid reminder that English women are far more active and exciting than any French women could ever be. The contrast between this fast foreign flapper and her voteless virtuous mother, whom Louise Bourgeois called "deliberate, clever, patient, soothing, reasonable, dainty, subtle, neat and useful", like a spider, must have bothered her.

There is a photograph in the Tate Modern of a well dressed Bourgeois visiting Moscow in 1933 or 1934. Surely no aware and sensitive person would have gone there at a time when millions of Russians, Ukrainians and Kazakhs were being deliberately starved to death by the government? How could you eat caviar in Moscow when there was no bread in the countryside? We must charitably assume that these family tensions rendered her unaware of this, since by all accounts she was and is a kind and decent, charitable person.

Now you may say that my disquisition on shibboleths and spiders is not relevant to the art works I saw. But why should it be less relevant than the commentaries of the artists and their claque of supporters. Is not the connection between a giant spider and the artist's mother a remote one that has to be awkwardly explained? Would you have called a monster spider called Maman "deliberate, clever, soothing, reasonable, dainty, subtle, neat and useful", or would you have thought of the perils of an outback dunnee or even a horror movie in which you get caught in a web to be eaten later by baby spiders and laughed at by Bruce the usurper? Would you have looked at a crack in the floor and seen it as a metaphor for a cultural cleavage or would you have seen it as a requiem for Kobe?

What I have done is to provide a torrent, a cornucopia, a web of alternative possibilities to show that these particular artistic private languages do not tap into shared cultural meanings, are arbitrary and in consequence incoherent. Any account of such artefacts is as believable as any other.

The third and easily the most pleasing of the monsters is Zhuang Huan's Three Legged Buddha in the Annenberg courtyard outside the Royal Academy of Arts, where it towers above Joshua Reynolds with his palette. One of the armless, torsoless Buddha's feet rests on the top half of Buddha's chopped off head, pressing it into the ground to the point where his jaw is missing below it. It gives a whole new meaning to the phrases "standing on one's head" and "the sound of no hands clapping".

This colossus of welded copper plates was inspired by the artist's visit to Tibet in 2005 where he found the remains of a Buddhist statue looted from a monastery during the Cultural Revolution. He was captivated by the mystery of this artefact of impeccable craftsmanship, its surface "completely beaten up with age", which does credit to his sensibility. The Chinese artist wished to bring harmony to London. He has.

Curiously there is no commentary nearby from a British progressive lamenting the destruction of Tibet and its art by Chinese Marxist imperialism. There is merely regret at the desecration of ancient artefacts. The passive voice indicates that no one is to blame. We are expected to be indignant about the impact of the Conquistadors on indigenous Columbia but the murderous Maoists were not Europeans, not Christians and embodied a different kind of modernity. So that's all right then.

Professor Christie Davies is the author of The Strange Death of Moral Britain.


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Very prescient. The Evening Standard just reported

Fifteen people have been injured by a work of art at London's Tate Modern, figures show. The accidents all involve the latest installation in the gallery's Turbine Hall - a giant crack snaking across the gallery floor.

Four of the 15 accidents have been reported to the Health and Safety Executive, and the museum is now considering whether to use a Perspex sheet to cover the 167-metre long crack.

Shibboleth 2007, which opened seven weeks ago, was created by Colombian artist Doris Salcedo to symbolise racial hatred and divisions within society. But in some places the artwork is wide enough for a toddler to fall inside.

Dennis Ahern, head of safety and security at the Tate, told colleagues in an internal email that people could easily trip or fall if not paying attention, "with the potential for significant leg injury".

He added that if existing safety features such as lighting and use of signs were not sufficient, the museum should consider applying extra measures. "Such options could include, but are not limited to, higher levels of control of entry, barrier or demarcation lines, Perspex bridging over certain sections or other physical interventions which may become required."

The Tate is facing four legal claims relating to the giant corkscrew slides that filled the hall last year.

Posted by: Willis Barker at November 27, 2007 08:27 PM
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