October 25, 2007


Two recent art items signal an intriguing possibility of a “re-positioning” by both artists and critics which may also portend a groundswell of reassessment in art discourse.

A brief article on sculptor Doris Salcedo’s Shibboleth (in Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall through April 6, 2008) described an installation that “begins as a hairline crack in the concrete floor of the building, then widens and deepens as it snakes across the room.” In attempting to clarify the “mystery” of her 548 foot-long work, Salcedo denies the importance of her work’s process, preferring instead to stress her interpretation of it: “What is important is the meaning of the piece. The making of it is not important.”(1)

Which struck me as a rather broad dismissal of the process of artmaking and a disingenuous presumption by Salcedo concerning an artwork’s “meaning.”

Salcedo is also quoted as saying the crevice “represents borders, the experience of immigrants, the experience of segregation, the experience of racial hatred.”(2)

Yet in her attempt to privilege her meaning for the work Salcedo effectively conditions alternative responses to it by viewers and art critics. This only serves to negate differing views and reviews of the artwork.

For example, one astute reviewer offered a different perspective on Shibboleth through a rewarding architectural reading:

“By making the floor the principal focus of her project, Salcedo shifts the perception of the Turbine Hall's iconic architecture and subtly subverts its monumentality and aspirations towards grandeur. Questions are raised about how we read architecture and the values it enshrines, and by extension the ideological foundations on which western notions of modernity are built. These notions are rooted in Enlightenment ideas of nationhood, progress and civilization.”(3)

Not surprisingly, this has less to do with “racial hatred.” So which is the authentic meaning for the piece? Certainly the “determinate mode” of Salcedo’s interpretation for her work only serves to devalue the viewing experience of others. As ever (at least since 1977) in our PoMo world:

“The question of meaning is constantly to be referred to the social and psychic formations of the author/reader [Administrator’s note: as well as 'artist/viewer.'], formations existentially simultaneous and co-extensive but theorized in separate discourses.”(4)

Another earlier essay regarded interpretation as a way to shackle challenging art:

“In most modern instances, interpretation amounts to the philistine refusal to leave the work of art alone. Real art has the capacity to make us nervous. By reducing the work of art to its content and then interpreting that, one tames the world of art. Interpretation makes art manageable, conformable.”(5)

Art is a representation that exceeds specific interpretations and restrictions on multiple “readings.” For artists to operate otherwise and prescribe their “correct” interpretations for a work and then force-feed that meaning on viewers, to tell them what they can feel or think about a piece, only ultimately diminishes its potency. “To interpret is to impoverish.”(6)

And this is why I see Salcedo’s supplemental and published words about her Tate installation as a distinctly “reactionary” re-positioning by an artist in a futile yet dangerous attempt to control meaning in the minds of the viewers. A lost cause at best and a misguided refusal to acknowledge the considerable strengths gained through an appreciation of art’s multiplicity of meanings.

Across the pond, a New York art critic took aim at “Warhol’s children.” In her Art In America review of another mammoth installation (Dash Snow and Dan Colen 's Nest at Deitch Projects) Faye Hirsch courageously re-assesses their “worth” and exacts a severe re-appraisal of the young bohemians. Nest is a recreation of one of Snow and Colen’s vandalized hotel rooms that features 2,000 shredded NYC telephone books, graffiti and school-boy drawings of varying obscenity. Her brutal yet articulate review is nothing less than a bravado re-positioning of the purpose of art criticism itself. Here is a critic not afraid to take a stand, to consider current work in the shadow of its predecessors and to distinguish the quality between then and now:

“Make no mistake: however ‘self-taught’ he [Snow] might be, it stretches credulity to believe that he, and/or Colen (a RISD alum), do not know, if only by osmosis, Walter de Maria’s SoHo 'Earth Room' (to which ‘Nest” has been compared), Julian Schnabel (whose giant canvases with scrawled texts come to mind), Jean-Michel Basquiat or Richard Prince’s jokes. Is it worth saying quotation – even inadvertent – is not enough?”(7)

This is daring and necessary art criticism and I applaud it and other recent reviews. These are new critical voices that have re-positioned themselves positively within art discourse as critics who will not be “numbed by the art world’s relentless trade in sophomoric genius.”(8)

Image: Earth Room; © Copyright by Walter De Maria and The Dia Foundation.


1. Salcedo causes a rift at Tate Modern, Guardian Unlimited, Oct. 8, 2007

2. Ibid.

3. Huliq.com

4. Burgin, Victor. “Looking at Photographs” in Theories and Documents of Contemporary Art: A Sourcebook of Artists’ Writings, (P. Selz, K. Stiles, eds.) Berkeley, 1996, 854.

5. Sontag, Susan. Against Interpretation and Other Essays, New York, 1966, 9.

6. Ibid., 8.

7. Hirsch, Faye. “Dash Snow and Dan Colen at Deitch”, Art in America, October 2007, 204.

8. Ibid.

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