Das Platforms / Contemporary Art

Joseph L. Griffiths: Shelters

by Sam West

23 May 2012

There’s a contradiction surrounding Joseph L Griffiths’ Shelters that’s too good to ignore. The installations were approved by the powers that be at the Docklands, presumably to help give the area a boost of edgy, Next Wave cultural clout. But the project itself quietly screams criticism at the failures of contemporary urbanism that Docklands seems to embody.

Joseph has taken found bits of plywood and other construction debris and remade them into shacks, lookouts, raft homes and caravans. By themselves the shelters would seem like impressive oddities made by some eccentric (and very short) modern nomad. Placed in the disorientating, postmodern shadow of New Quay, they’re a protest.

Art that’s critical of its surroundings is nothing new but any flick through the Docklands News will tell you Docklanders get very defensive about all the flak that gets thrown their way. So this raises the question: did the council simply not ‘get’ that Shelters was going to be a direct attack on their living choices? Or did they totally understand it and go with it anyway because they’ve got a better sense of humour than I’ve given them credit for? I hope it’s the latter.

I had a chat to Griffiths at the Next Wave opening and he told me his problem with Docklands isn’t the high density towers (high density living can be part of the solution) or even the lack of trees. The main thing he’s trying to talk about with Shelters is how far removed he thinks we’ve come from architecture as pure art, a synergy of form and function. He draws inspiration from his travels around the world, during which he saw how other cultures live — cultures that he sees as more happily and sustainably in touch with their environment.

He saw how the Berber, the indigenous people of the Morroccan Sahara, would walk for weeks, erecting their traditional hand-woven camel-hair tents, gathering water from huge systems of underground wells and moving on. In Paris, he found the gypsy and migrant settlements on the edges and rail lines to be some of the most colourful, vibrant pockets of the city. He was inspired by how the Neolithic drystone structures of both French provincial villagers of Gordes and Sardianian shepherds haven’t needed to be changed for centuries. In each case, everyday people with simple hand tools and raw materials are actively building their homes and cultures. In contrast, the committee-planned Docklands seems completely alien, its history paved over by developers who have nothing to do with the lived experience of the area.

Romanticising the ways of nomadic and impoverished communities is not without its own set of problems. But sometimes it takes a romantic idea to make a coherent statement. Wandering along New Quay at dusk on a Sunday, and seeing kids jump all over the Shelters like they were cubby houses while their parents look on intrigued and slightly bemused, it’s plain to see that Griffiths has made something successful.

Shelters (part of Next Wave 2012)

Exhibition dates 19 – 27 May 2012, 24 hours a day