London: Shibboleths of the Art Scene
[published by the Hindustan Times, 22 November 2007]
In ancient Hebrew, ‘shibboleth’ was a word that divided insider from outsider – a bit like art in today’s London, writes Kate Hodal…
“It’s obviously a symbolic act,” said one Italian tourist to two of his enraptured friends, both of whom were fitting their legs, backpacks and cameras into the broken concrete pit. “It’s a crack. This is a museum: it’s meant to be perfect.”
For Salcedo, whose politicisation of violence has made her famous outside of her native Bogota, the crack is a dialogue about the divisions between humanity, a statement about borders, control, racism. “It represents the experience of immigrants, the experience of segregation, the experience of racial hatred,” she said at the crack’s unveiling last month. An experience so negative, she continued, that the fissure it creates between native and outsider is “as deep as humanity”.
Shibboleth was a word in ancient Hebrew meaning ‘torrent’, whose linguistics became a politicised noun delineating tribes in Israel. The story goes that the Gileadites, manning the Jordan River, would ask Ephraimite refugees to pronounce the word ‘shibboleth’; if they failed to say ‘sh’, a sound unknown in the Ephraimite dialect, they would be slain on the spot. It was a test of local language, of custom, of belonging. ‘Shibboleth’ defined the victor from the loser, casting natives from refugees and creating scars between peoples and places. A bit like London’s current immigration issues, says Salcedo, and a lot like London’s art scene.
WHO MOVED MY ART?
The English have always been funny about their art: for them, it’s been their shibboleth, their celebration of divisiveness, of their once vast empire. Where they might have lost political control, they retained art collections: such was the case with Greece. Their complete collection of statues and tempes, for example, pillaged direct from the Acropolis in 1801 by Lord Elgin, British Ambassador to Turkey, is a subject that has divided art historians, politicians and nationalists for the past two centuries. How could Greece possibly tell its stories of prowess, culture and mytholody, various Hellenic Ministers of Culture proclaimed, when whole portions of the Parthenon’s frieze were missing?
Britain’s answer was shockingly simple: fill in the missing gaps with copies of the originals. As the British Museum, home to the Elgin Marbles, stood behind Parliament’s decision to refuse Greece’s marbles to their rightful home, art historians stood proud: tourists travel in their millions to visit London, they noted, not just to see England, but to see the rest of the world. Instead of trekking the thousands of miles required to see China’s 7,000 terracotta soldiers in X’ian province, you can get up close and personal in central London with 20 of the lifesize figurines (and their clay horses, carriages and burial processions), the largest group ever to leave China. Or you can head south of the Thames to see King Tutankhamun, Egypt’s first monotheistic ruler, portrayed in all his 3,000-year-old glory, sarcophagus, family and all, put on display at the O2 Arena/Millenium Dome in Greenwich.
FUN – AND THE ART OF IT
It’s true that the more fabulous the exhibition (the Millenium Dome is expecting over 2 million visitors to see King Tut), the more costly it is; but what do you do when you want to get a taste for modern art without visiting every single one of London’s galleries? Visit a fair, of course. The city’s most notable foray into the weird, the wacky and downright whimsical is Frieze Art Fair, held in Regent’s Park every October. Although the founders had no idea what ‘frieze’ actually meant (they were said to have been delighted that a ‘frieze’ actually had something to do with art), their fair has now become the place to see the new and upcoming artists in London and across the world: over 150 galleries present their cream of the crop to A-list celebs, like Kate Moss, who buy it up in spades.
ART AND THE SWIPE OF PLASTIC
As the rich flashed their credit cards and bought up the avant-gardeness of it all (stills of swan sex were going for thousands), the realists (and shallower-pocketed) went to Zoo Art Fair over in Piccadilly. Here, smaller galleries demonstrated that art was something still tangible. Motorcycles made of papier-mache sat alongside intricate collages of cowboys swinging from chandeliers and mooseheads made from corrugated cardboard. This was real art being made by real people, without the semantics of what art ‘means’ or ‘portrays’. But as Frieze has nearly maxed itself out, Zoo is only just getting there: you can still buy a piece of original art for under £1,000, although I didn’t find anything bigger or shinier than an 8×10 canvas to fill my house.