BLOG Paul Griffiths


gimme shelter and Tŷ Unnos

The Oriel Davies Gallery (ODG), Newtown, is a relatively small public gallery that often punches above its weight, and the knock-out blow is sometimes dealt by the sideshow to the main event. The main event, at present, is Bathing Beauties, an exhibition of over a hundred architectural models by various artist-designers, that re-imagines the tradition of the beach hut for the 21st century. This is certainly worth seeing but I was more forcibly struck by Antonia Dewhurst's work, which complements the Bathing Beauties show.

A recent art graduate of Coleg Menai, Dewhurst is interested in making model and make-shift shelters, usually with an immediate focus on the act of making rather than the meanings of the made thing, although she acknowledges that the meanings of, say, 'home', may underlie the prompt to make (read the artist's interview with Richard Taylor). Within the gallery, the small Test Bed space is occupied by gimme shelter, a display of nine models, each one recognisably a very basic house, a crude mode of dwelling. Dewhurst is reflecting on the Welsh tradition of the tŷ unnos, a 'one-night house', according to which a shelter built on common land after sunset, with smoke in the chimney by sunrise, gave the builder a claim on the land. Outdoors, in the park adjacent to ODG, she has, with the help of a team, constructed an actual tŷ unnos, according to the rules that would, in another age, have given a person or family a right to a home (I understand that the artist is present at the Tŷ Unnos every Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday morning throughout the exhibition, but check with the gallery first).

Tŷ Unnos and gimme shelter can be helpfully understood as performance pieces, in the sense that a performance is an act that changes something beyond itself. The models displayed in gimme shelter evokes the kind of model-making that many children, sometimes also adults, are absorbed in and obsessed by. It may be more typically a boy's activity, but don't overlook the connection with dolls' houses. The child's absorption in the demands of making is matched with a dreaming-into-existence of an identity: an aeroplane to fly, a ship to sail, a house to live in, an emblem of family and security. Dewhurst's models enact such obsessions in a deeply engaging way. I can't give details here – see for yourselves – but her close attention to detail invites a particular kind of close looking, in which the viewer wants to be re-assured that the make-believe of each model has a satisfying relationship to reality. Not disappointed, the viewer then has access to the same world of memory, imagining and self-identification.

If these model shelters pull towards the dream world of the model beach huts in ODG's main exhibition, they are also pulled in another direction, towards a harsher reality, in the full-scale Tŷ Unnos built overnight in the park. Much of what I have said about gimme shelter also applies to this structure. The obvious difference is that, here, the act of building is a more explicit consummation of the cultural and social significance of the tŷ unnos. For the gimme shelter models, the reduction in scale and use of substitute materials to make something that can be held in the hand may be the key to the operation of the maker's and viewers' imagination. In the case of the tŷ unnos in the park, the reality of the materials and the re-enactment of the actual rules and physical conditions of the tŷ unnos tradition does the trick.


Paul Griffiths


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