NEW: DEFENCE at Essex’s Coalhouse Fort pops up on 28 April

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 Zealeyhave contributed existing work relevant to the theme, or created new artworks in response to the fort, the surrounding landscape and archive.

In Defence Of Industry by Felicity Hammond. In Defence of Industry brings into focus the relationship between the industrial history of Barrow-in-Furness and the wider Cumbrian landscape, in particular the area’s mining history and the subsequent shift towards the nuclear industry during the mid-twentieth century. Cutting to the heart of the continuing political issues surrounding the impact of nuclear industry, in the town best known for being the place where Trident submarines are built, the work raises themes around defence, secrecy and the unseen earth below the surface.

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.

NEW: DEFENCE is open from 11am-4pm on 28 April 2018 at Coalhouse Fort, Princess Margaret Rd, East Tilbury, Tilbury, Essex, RM18 8PB. Instagram: @newdefence 

The destruction of former generations © Michael Whelan. Michael is a photographic artist and lecturer who makes work about the environment and how our complex relationship with this plays out in individual and collective behaviour. Often employing a gentle observational approach, Michael documents subtle human conditions and the connections we have with objects around us. Issues of scale, diverse topographic perspectives, and human interaction in particular inform his landscape work. The destruction of former generations is a site-responsive series to Coalhouse Fort, a coastal defence site. The work continues to explore the impact and influences we are having on our planet by dissecting and the reification of plastic waste.
Alter Pieces © Alastair Thain. Born in Dusseldorf in 1961 – at the height of the Cold War – Thain’s creative practice was influenced by world events, and the work of Joseph Beuys, in particular the modes of communication Beuys developed to express his healing, egalitarian, social, environmental, and political concerns. Thain has designed and built some of the world’s most advanced camera systems, using the technology to record the lives of the individuals he encountered and how they were swept up by historic events he had witnessed.
Image © Dafna Talmor. Dafna Talmor is an artist and lecturer based in London whose practice encompasses photography, video, curation, and collaborations. Often working intuitively and taking an experimental approach that has involved splicing together colour negatives, Dafna’s work aims to reference yet disrupt pictorial conventions of landscape photography.
Scramble : Video Piece 2018. London-based multidisciplinary artist Victoria Coster works in a variety of media including digital data, sound, sculpture, installation, drawing, photography, and moving image. With an interest in finding and exploring ways of corrupting and excavating the DNA of images and objects, Victoria, whose work is driven by research, creates works that challenge our perceptions of self in relation to object, other, and environment.
Untitled sketch, 2018 © Tom Brannigan. Tom Brannigan is a still life photographer based in the UK who works with analogue and digital processes. His interests lie in finding original ways to communicate strong ideas visually. For both his personal and commercial work, Tom uses photography, sculpture and installation to create works, sometimes infused with wit and humour, that make the viewer stop in their tracks and question what it is they are looking at.
Defensive animal by Laurynas Karmalavicius. Lithuanian-born artist Laurynas Karmalavicius works with materials that include wood, metal, and stone. Through his artworks he explores the dramatic characteristics of humans’ destructive approaches to the planet and towards each other. Laurynas channels his observations of the daily lives of human beings – whether victim, protestor or conformist – through video, sculpture, photography and poetry.
Cross Wing, 2017 by Samuel Sealey. With an interest in the relationship between new technologies and environmental issues, British sculptor Samuel Zealey creates works that highlight the problems created as a result of global warming brought about by the use of dirty, non-reusable fuels. Often taking a playful approach to form, Samuel combines precise engineering with a material sensibility to create works that engage with and question issues of culture, technology, and sustainability.
Diane Smyth

Diane Smyth is the editor of BJP, returning for a second stint on staff in 2023 - after 15 years on the team until 2019. As a freelancer, she has written for The Guardian, FT Weekend Magazine, Creative Review, Aperture, FOAM, Aesthetica and Apollo. She has also curated exhibitions for institutions such as The Photographers Gallery and Lianzhou Foto Festival. You can follow her on instagram @dismy