Deconstructing Anne Tallentire's Shelter

Major art project co-commissioned by Nerve Centre and 14-18 NOW lays bare a century of basic survival necessities using only the materials required

The materials are important. Corrugated iron, plexiglass, wooden beams, scaffolding poles, tarpaulin, insulation, stiff sheets of oriented strand board (cheaper than plywood but sufficient to the task), all measured and cut precisely so there’s nothing more and nothing less than is needed.

Important too is the list of component parts, written out carefully and exactly and pinned to the wall, no unnecessary words, just as you might get from IKEA or Homebase.

It is functional and spare, a lean presentation, the fat cut away. There’s no adornment, no flourish, no decorative touches. There’s beauty, though, in the words stamped on the wood, or in the coarseness of the wood, and in its grain, and in the waves of the corrugated sheets, and in the patterns made by the compression of the ingredients in the engineered lumber. But the beauty is a by-product of the function, not the point.

The material is readily available, in this case bought from McMahon’s Building Supplies across the River Foyle, in Bay Road. Anyone can get this. Anyone can follow the instructions and put it together. This is everything you need, for anyone who needs it.

This is Anne Tallentire’s Shelter, one of the World War One centenary art co-commissions for 14-18 NOW, which marks Nerve Centre's reopening of the former Turner Prize galleries at Ebrington. It is a hut. It has no foundation and no place, but can be placed anywhere it is needed by people who have been torn from their roots, or who just find themselves somewhere else. Its relation to 14-18 is in its inspiration: the Nissen Hut designed by the inventor, Major Peter Nissen of the Royal Engineers.


Anne Tallentire

In 1916 this was his answer to the desperate need for a structure to store munitions, materials, supplies, and tens of thousands of soldiers serving the Western Front. The form followed the function, the materials were dictated by cost and availability, the scale governed by the need. The component parts could be loaded onto the back of a standard army wagon. Each hut took no more than a few hours to erect. And they could be taken down just as easily, ready to be moved where they were needed.

Designed in spring, it was in production before summer had ended and more than 100,000 were churned out by the time the war was over.

Production slowed in peacetime, but World War Two saw a revival of the Nissen Hut and its counterparts like the Quonset, and such was the displacement of people that the need for them remained once the soldiers had moved out. Governments used them. In Narrogin Camp in Western Australia, European migrants shifted by the war lived in Nissen Huts. And, closer to home, if such a place exists, people of Derry-Londonderry moved into the Quonset Huts vacated by American GIs, and squatted in Springtown Camp because it was better than what they called home. There are documents in the city archives showing proposals to convert the huts into living quarters for families.

In this exhibition, though, the Now is as important as the 14-18. War continues to uproot, conflicts continue to destroy homes that were thought to be permanent, refugees still make desperate journeys taking with them only what they can carry.

Shelter 1

'I am struck by what is required for daily life,' says Tallentire, 'by the absolute necessaries of daily life, and by the organisational principles of living. What do we really need to survive?'

The exhibition is in parts. The first part consisted of the organisation of the materials required for the construction of Tallentire’s hut. These were stored in Gallery Two  now part of Nerve Visual together with Gallery One, at Building Eighty81. Each day for seven days prior to the second part of the show – opening on 12 July – particular materials were sorted and taken out onto the parade ground at Ebrington.

They were laid out on the ground in a kind of schematic diagram, the process filmed from ground level and by drone, before being taken back inside, to be stacked in Gallery One. The stacks form sculptures, neat, compact, taking up only the space required.

'Each schematic diagram and sculpture refers one of the seven notional spaces I identified as the basic needs of life,' says Tallentire. 'There’s a kitchen, dormitory, sickroom, store room, classroom, mess, and bathroom. Each room answers a need fundamental to each of us wherever we are. But it’s also a basic shell that forms a temporary shelter to be adapted for different uses.'

The stacks of materials will not be assembled to construct a shelter. That’s not the point. The point is transit, transition, readiness to move, an acceptance that displacement can occur and that these are the things that can help you negotiate where you are. The impermanence forces you to ask what is meant by place.

Shelter 2

There is a lot to this show, and much of it sneaks up on you. It sends a radar arm sweeping round the dial picking up unexpected ideas and connections. Ebrington itself, for instance – a parade ground within a complex of buildings which once housed Allied servicemen and women and British soldiers who stayed and then left. It had a use, and is now seeking a new purpose, and is being adapted to meet new needs. Standing by the parade ground there is the statue of a sailor, his essential possessions in a couple of bags he carries as he strides away, following orders from someone he’s never met.

Each sculpture is accompanied by a film of the process it followed. The drone footage over the assembly of materials shows old shapes in new forms – blocks of OSB suddenly become units lined up on parade, awaiting orders to move out. Or they just show units, blocks taken down to a basic shape, forms that can be arranged and rearranged.

Once the Derry-Londonderry show has finished, the sculptures will move to the Ulster Museum and then to Fablab Limerick, and will take a different form in each place. Nothing stays where it is put down. Nothing stays the same.

Shelter by Anne Tallentire runs until July 9 on the Ebrington Parade Ground and from July 12 - 31 at Nerve Visual in Eighty81. For more information visit