Shibboleth, Doris Salcedo

From an  abstract line to its reality, maps are the one and the most used way to deliver information. Since maps solely would lack the informal and life stories , artistic practices are to used to extend this ‘living’ borderspace(s) by making it visible in another dimension.

A part of the Unilever Series at Tate Modern, Doris Salcedo’s 2007 installation project titled Shibboleth, 167 meter crack along the concrete ground of Turbine Hall. “Shibboleth” refers to difference and genocide, in particular to the Old Testament test used by the Gileadites to identify the defeated Ephraimites. The latter were unable to pronounce the soft “sh” of the word, therefore their otherness were proved and resulted with a massacre. The crack represents “a negative space … the area occupied by those that have been left out of the history of modernity and kept at the margin of high western culture” (Financial Times, 2007). In the accompanying essay to the installation, Eyal Weizman takes the attention to the building of Tate Modern itself.  The year of 1947 was when the building was commissioned as a power station, and the same year marks the independence of India along with the mass immigration that came and changed the UK.

Anderson asserts three ‘power institutions’ that helped to maintain “the way that colonial state imagined its dominion—the nature of human beings it ruled, the geography of its domain, and the legitimacy of its ancestry” (1991: 164). These are the census, the map, and the museum. (ibid.) The census is the categorical enumeration that numbers the citizens, the map is the closed and bounded imagination, and the museum is where the ‘archaeological’, retrospective history is excavated, or created, and shown. Border is an issue that delves in on  all three of these power institutions. Systematic organization of the establishment of the Israeli State in Palestine was administered and constructed with every detail in  accordance with its  historical, geographical, and ethnical distinctions. In Israel, archeology becomes a tool to investigate the so-called down or buried history in order to find the roots and the evidences of existence of the  non-existing state.


Doris Salcedo, Shibboleth, 2007

Therefore the references of Shibboleth, as a crack, a wound, a border, an archaeological investigation starting point, or a protesting artwork in the museum, allow me to open the discussion of the border(s) of Israel- Palestine. According to Weizman, in his exhibition accompanying writing Seismic Archeology (2007), the crack almost afforded an archaeological experience for the visitors, which allow them to look into the foundations of the building and metaphorically into history, also how the Tate’s collection was originally built from sugar industry based in slave labour and colonial exploitation of land. Just like the maps which makes tools and knowledge out of experiences of imperialists and places they ‘discover’, the very exhibition hall is open to discussion by the work installed there. Same is the potentiality of border. Salcedo’s work, as a line and as a border, both for the surface and the layers of history, not only reminds the segregation that was made based on sound of sh, but also the divisions based on territorial belongings and their backgrounds. (Weizman, 2007)


The crack of the work is a marker of what is beneath, not the sand under the pavements, but a wound that exists, inflicted by many violences. Inherent in the artistic practice, showing the dark side of the things, or better yet turning the tools upside down to make them visible, is also an approach to somehow an inherent architectural impulse: Virilio says that architecture (building) comes with its destruction. The artistic methods of creating a negative space that deals with the approach like Salcedo’s crack can be exampled as a border based on the contact zone as defined by Mary Louise Pratt, who basically defines the term as   “ to refer to social spaces where cultures meet, clash, and grapple with each other, often in contexts of highly asymmetrical relations of power, such as colonialism, slavery, …” (1991, 34). Additionally, such an approach is similar to Gordon Matta-Clark’s, who opened huge holes on buildings, challenging the observer  to think on the permanency of the built form and how it is  perceived through and from within.

Although the line is an abstract mark and does not have width in maps—existing only to represent—they still as serve   as representations of some reality. In physical reality, a line has width as well; it defines a space around and on both sides of an architectural organization. The story of the border provides hints about the border line, its representation and the contestation that goes on and around it. The laid-out map after the Israel and Jordan war in 1949 was drawn with pens of different thickness and softness, producing strange places on the map, and this is where  story takes on a few different versions. I will continue to  refer to this foundational story, which keeps its main idea alive—that the unnatural, constructed border created in this historical incident tells the struggle of representing the demarcation and delineation of the real world on a map.

When Benveniste asks the question of “[w]ho owned the width of line?” (2000: 57) he again refers to the story of the borderlines of Israel-Palestine. Based on the difference of the points of the pens that were used to draw, the borderline on 1:20000 scale map represented borders  with widths that were up to 80 meters of space, which belonged to the neither side. The story has a few different versions, which might also suggest that the urge behind the practice of bordering is a wonder, and certainly avers that “[b]order policing is a ritualistic performance.” (Brown, 2011)


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