The shape of the world is hanging by a thread – or rather, according to experts, by a 110 mile-long (177km) rift. That’s the extent of a rapidly expanding crack in an enormous ice shelf in Antarctica. When the Larsen C shelf finally splits, the largest iceberg ever recorded (bigger than the US state of Rhode Island and a third the size of Wales) will snap off into the ocean. Widening each day by 3 ft (1 m), the groaning cleft is on the verge of dramatically redrawing the southern-most cartography of our planet and is likely to lead, climatologists predict, to an acceleration in the rise of sea levels globally.
An aerial photo of the frigid fissure, taken late last year when it was discovered that the pace of the icy tear was quickening, was suddenly back in the news this week with the announcement that a second rift in the shelf had been detected. The fracture leads our eye along a zig-zagging path – from the backward gaze of the plane’s right engines to the pristine polar blue of the horizon in the distance. The jaggedness of the cleft, which takes our vision on a journey whose ultimate destination is unfathomable, seems at once monumental and terrifyingly fragile. The photo intensifies our helplessness in the face of cataclysmic change. It freezes the potential destruction in the blink of a camera’s shutter, while at the same time hinting at a catastrophe that we can witness unfolding but are utterly powerless to stop.
As a visual statement, the aerial photo of the Larsen C crack is, by definition, incomparable; never before has the world marked the glacial advance of such a sublime and fearsome fracture in its very fabric. Yet the reemergence of the image in the news anticipates the ten-year anniversary of one of the most intriguing and innovative large-scale works in contemporary art – a work whose power relies for its thought-provoking effect on the peculiar poetry of ruinous rifts. In October 2007, the Colombian-born artist Doris Salcedo unveiled in London an ambitious installation in the cavernous space of Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall – a piece that split reaction down the middle.
Inviting gallery-goers into the otherwise empty and austere interior of the former Bankside Power Station, Salcedo subverted expectations. Rather than offering visitors a hall of temporarily installed sculptures, she orchestrated the contemplation instead of a ragged subterranean breach that appeared to rip open the concrete floor of the structure – a crevice that extended from one end of the yawning space to the other.
Salcedo deepened the mystery of her bold and experimental conceptual work by giving to it the curious title Shibboleth – a biblical word which, when mispronounced, was said to have exposed the outsider status of individuals. Complicating matters still further, the artist insisted that her work was a comment not on the folly of material ambitions, but on racism – that deep cultural scar that tears at the foundations of humanity. Placed side-by-side, this week’s photo from Antarctica and the image captured a decade ago of Doris Salcedo’s challenging Shibboleth share both a brutal beauty and a common theme: the brittleness of being.
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