With its dungeon-like chambers, ghostly corridors, and casemates on which guns would have stood, Coalhouse Fort in East Tilbury, Essex, is an unlikely art gallery. But on 28 April 2018, the 144 year fort on the edge of the Thames Estuary will open its doors to the public for a pop-up exhibition, featuring artists such as Felicity Hammond, Dafna Talmor, and Corinne Silva.
Caught between a military past and its current use as a tourist attraction, the fort’s identity is shifting. The building is deteriorating and being reclaimed by nature – the antithesis to its original role as a robust military base. A team of volunteers is working with the local council to restore it, and keep it from falling into obscurity.
But while it may be ramshackle, it is a space full of artistic possibility, and that is what captured my imagination when I was invited by artist and lecturer Michael Whelan to curate a pop-up exhibition there. Whelan had been working with Thurrock Council to digitise its rich archive of photographs, documents, and military-related artefacts and, noticing the site’s potential as a space to show art, decided to put on an exhibition.
In the year that marks the centenary of the end of the First World War, and given the venue we would be working in, it made sense to work around the theme of ‘defence’. Nine UK-based artists – Tom Brannigan, Victoria Coster, Felicity Hammond, Laurynas Karmalavicius, Corinne Silva, Dafna Talmor, Alastair Thain, Michael Whelan, and Samuel Zealey – have contributed existing work relevant to the theme, or created new artworks in response to the fort, the surrounding landscape and archive.
The exhibition is part of a wider project called NEW: DEFENCE, which involves making the digitised archive available to the public as well as running a series of artist residencies at the fort. It’s all part of a drive to preserve the site’s cultural and historical legacy.
Coalhouse Fort never saw any conflict – its only role was as a deterrent. I found it strange that a military site primed to respond to attack never fired in battle and instead became just “a crumbling monument to man’s fear of war”, to quote a journalist who wrote a piece on it in the 1980s.
With this in mind, the exhibition invites audiences on a journey through the fort, and encourages them to reconsider how we engage with this kind of space. I like the idea of the fort opening itself up to new possibilities – letting down its guard in a very literal, physical way – and playing with visitors’ expectations of a place that was never meant to show art.
Working with the artists, we have – I hope – managed to embrace the fort’s quirks, with each artist interpreting the theme and space in his or her own way. It may be a tumbledown old construction, but I hope it can also be an inspiring space in which to experience art, if only for one day.