There is something about the concept of shelter that embeds itself deep into our collective psyche. The French philosopher Gaston Bachelard knew as much – in his seminal book Poetics of Space he examines how an idea of ‘home’ is core to our lived experience of architecture and how we both inhabit and imagine our domestic spaces. For him the hut, the simplest shelter, is ‘a centre of legend’, a place of refuge in a wilderness that informs much myth and literature. These dreams of refuge also inform Henk Wildschut’s book Shelter, a book that looks at modern migration in Europe through the simple ephemeral shelters constructed by displaced people.
Henk Wildschut does not offer portraits; the narrative is not built on the depictions of individuals directly, but rather through the exterior and interior space of a rudimentary architecture fabricated out of appropriated and discarded material. It is at core an exploration of the spaces of displacement mapped out onto the European landscape; in places of entry into Europe such as Greece and Malta through to northern France, a would-be place of exit over the channel to the UK – if it were not for the physical, social and legal barriers in place. A large proportion of the book in fact is given over to the ‘Jungle’ in the woods near Calais, itself a form of wilderness, where encampments formed after the closure of the Sangatte camp – which now, too, has been cleared by the French authorities. Here, people who had nowhere else to go had to survive the best they could, and these images give concrete voice to their struggle to survive in an alien place.
This book becomes a counterpoint to much of current media attention to immigration in the UK. Common are right-wing narratives that represent migrants, refugee or asylum seekers as outsiders which at their virulent worst feed social fear, dehumanising them into a homogenous hoard that is to be that brings contamination and corruption. Wildschut’s strategy cuts through these notions and does not to offer an opportunity to gaze upon and objectify the migrant as an ‘other’ to be feared or patronised. Though occasionally we glimpse the backs of people, or their feet, or just the hinted shapes of sleeping bodies, for the most part all we are offered is a liminal awareness of presence, in rumpled blankets or darkened entrances. By being forced to contemplate these fragile constructions and their hinted presences we see the vulnerability of the spaces of migration, and therefore the very vulnerability of the migrants themselves; it is this vulnerability that pervades the book. In one image of Ostiense Railway station in Rome we see a figure shrouded in a blanket, the head covered in a large holdall. In another, a shelter appears to be constructed out of a pile of blankets in the Calais woods, bleak and unwelcoming. In another an orange towel hangs alone on a branch, appearing as if a prosaic subversion of that legend of epic travel, the myth of the Golden Fleece. In their ad hoc juxtapositions, these images could be read as something witty, surrealistic or performative, but the context refuses this. Whimsy is cut short, and instead we are offered something that becomes meditative and poignant.
The images are not conventionally aesthetic; this is concerned photojournalism that moves beyond the cool formality of a purely conceptual typology. The work feels different to the earlier work on Calais by Jean Revillard that featured in the WPP in 2008, whose dramatic images of Jungle shelters were more informed by a painterly landscape tradition. Henk Wildschut’s straighter style and even-handled lighting is less dramatic, and therefore somehow feels more personal; by simply showing us the intimate details of the fragile grasped domesticity, we can see how they recover their sense of the domestic in an alien environment, in small details such as hanging clothes. In doing so their lived experience of an architecture of displacement and dislocation pricks and scratches at our own conceptions of home, our own commodified desires of the ‘perfect’ home and its ideals of status, fashion and design. The baldness of the images invites us to consider our own lived domesticity, our own dreamt spaces so eloquently described by Bachelard, to become reminded of our own possible fragility; it is this that so humanises migration in a way that the simple depiction of the migrant often cannot, and this subtle book forces us to consider these difficult questions.
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