A critical crack at the Tate Modern

January 7, 2008

Looking at Shibboleth by Doris SalcedoA walk around parts of the Tate Modern, London, leaves me dissatisfied, yet there are some curiously good bits. I leave with questions.

Shibboleth by Doris Salcedo: there’s this huge crack in the floor of the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall. People wander along it; some touch it, particularly children.

The friend I’ve met up with for this gallery trip tells me this exhibit has caused controversy. He also tells me a critic said it should have cowboys and Indians in it; my friend shows me where he would have them. Instead, I can imagine lava flows, or lights to fake them.

Later, when we are leaving, we both agree it’s just a crack, but that the installation is the artwork, perhaps the movement of people over its area. Later, I think to myself, “But there’s no flat canyon-like bottom to the crack, perhaps mountaineers instead?”

Later yet, I read the online notes about the piece: I must be dense, I didn’t understand it all, or at least the artist’s conception, until I read them. Perhaps I will watch the artist’s comments sometime?

The New York Times (online, 11th December, 2007) ran an amusing article, Caution: Art Afoot with some interesting comments from visitors about the crack, as much about its Health and Safety issues.

Rachel Cook writes in the Guardian (online, 14th October, 2007), Is this really all it’s cracked up to be?, about the banality of the crack, and cowboys and Indians; and there are links to articles about the controversy.


Ishi's Light by Anish Kapoor, Tate Modern Ishi’s Light by Anish Kapoor: a large, very large, floor-standing piece, like an earthenware pot with a full vertical strip missing from one side; strangely it’s glazed on the inside.

I want to walk inside it, it seemed right to want to stand inside it. But there’s rope to stop me. I read on the wall notes that the artist expects people to stand inside it. I’m dissatisfied. When even the artist wants me to, why can’t I interact with this piece?

The image, official, from the Tate Modern itself, shows no rope. What does this mean? Am I closer to the work when it’s not present? How strange!

I notice all around little signs saying do not touch, and how even clean hands can cause damage.


USSR in Construction magazine covers: the text beneath the caption of a display lists the languages of the covers on the wall (not shown on web page). But none of the covers are in one of the languages listed, unlike on the display next to it, which has all of them.

I hesitate to tell one of the assistants, but I do. I wonder if anyone else has noticed this before; did they care? Would they care?

I wonder about the small typographical differences between the different versions; beyond the title being translated, why those variations? But this isn’t in the wall notes. How does the feel of the paper vary through the years?: touching not allowed.


There are various objects on the fifth floor, some strike me on this occasion.

untitlied 1965/71 by Robert Morris, Tate Modern The cubes with the mirrors (untitled 1965/71 by Robert Morris): I want to walk in it, but it’s not allowed.

The hanging braided fabric (Pavilion Suspended in a Room 1 by Christina Iglesias): I want to touch it, but it’s not allowed.

The metal tiles (144 Magnesium Square by Carl Andre): I want to walk on them barefoot: no sign says I can’t, but I don’t want someone else’s warts. Then I read in the notes that the artist’s pieces are intended to be walked on. Apparently, “Moving over the square brings an awareness of the texture of the magnesium plates.” Not in my shoes it doesn’t! But, at least, I am allowed to walk on them.


The interactive displays on the fifth floor are fun. (But no link to share that I can find.) They demand a sense of exploration, tactile engagement.

I worked out the way one of them works without reading the notes; this feels good. We didn’t see the notes until we were about to walk away! They were hung up, for me above eye level, above head level even, so I hadn’t seen them as I walked towards the display.

Another has various eyepieces and things to twist, each of which changes how an encased object is seen… light, distortion, colour, viewing angle.

Another is explicitly a console game: it demands choice, movement, touch, knowledge, guesswork, opinion, interaction with strangers. It offers the possibility of walking away a little changed by the experience. It engages me in the process of making art, particular works and general expressions, and also in the process for an artist as an individual at a particular time.

The first two look like they’re for children, because of their height and size. Is this intended to make adults “feel like children”? Is it humbling, rescaling, patronising,…?

I do wonder about the accessibility of the interactive displays. Could you engage with them in a wheelchair? How tall would you need to be to lean over some of them? And how old, statistically, to be tall enough? How much text, written at what level would you need to understand?


People can touch the crack, and the interactive displays; and they do. What’s the point of so much untouchable art? Would it be better to display untouchable originals or touchable reproductions? Are art galleries really only about the visual channel, with added historical notes?

So, I have questions. Odd that so many are about the curation, the display of the pieces, rather than the pieces themselves.

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2 Responses to “A critical crack at the Tate Modern”


  1. Wow… what a post! Nice of you to cite our conversation… after visiting the Tate Modern and reading your post, I am left with a little meta-insight about experiencing contemporary arts… I enjoy interacting with the artefacts, and the game console is perfect example of it.

    My question is: Is it time for the Tate to have a special space for digital, interactive arts? I guess that it would require a cultural leap for the Tate curators though.

  2. Peter Manson Says:

    The Tate has had quite a number of digital exhibitions in the years since it opened, so I guess the question is about a permanent gallery dedicated to that – and I’d say no, for 2 reasons:

    1. Very little of the space at Tate modern is dedicated to one type of art, so doing this for digital interactive would be suggesting that has some special importance – I prefer it to be seen as equal to any other type.

    2. Because interactive art is essentially ephermeral, it would somehow seem conceptually wrong to tie it down to a fixed space. It would be like celebrating great performers by getting Damien Hirst to preserve them in a big block like his cows/sheep/etc.


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