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.
Doris Salcedo’s Shibboleth replaces the “fun for the whole family” Unilever slides in the Turbine Hall at the Tate.
The installation is dramatic and strange and at first I thought it a bit too facile in terms of its metaphors– a visual pun on “ground breaking” and “shaking the foundations” of the museum.
But then I thought about the name– which, depending on how you pronounce it, could cost you your life– according to a story in the Hebrew Bible.
When I was in school being taught King Lear by a Scot, I marveled at her pronunciation of Gloucester. It’s glosster not glawchester, she corrected me. She was a snob who hated James Joyce. And she also would say “If you can’t spell or pronounce a word correctly, it’s not yours to use” which was essentially silencing a good number of her students. I think she liked it that way.
Living in London as an expat I’m continually reminded that I pronounce things wrong. Now that I live here, I often mumble names if I have not yet heard them aloud, hoping to buy some time until I hear exactly which consonants are swallowed, which vowels are stretched, etc. And of course there are shared words that I must say in my own way, no matter how damning my own accent. How astitute that Salcedo would top off her subversive installation in the land of Henry Higgins and Eliza Doolittle with this title.
Moving here has taught me another “otherness”– I am from a colonized nation, though a remote one that has now become the colonizer. How do you say disorienting? Ok, now say it with a mouth full of marbles.
Salcedo’s piece is serious and angry. Heavy. But there is also something hilarious about it. Watching people follow the fracture up the floor, all peeking as if they are looking for some secret treasure, the point of it all, the inner workings of the Oz of the art world.
I have to admit what I loved most about it were the signs installed by the museum which warned people to watch their step and mind their children. The crack is just the right size for a foot, a hand or a child’s head to get wedged in and stuck there. In an age where museums pander to children to the point of the shamelessness and garish simplicity, it’s nice to see something so small– so seemingly banal– and dangerous.