> An unlikely gallery: the ruined fort opening itself up to art

Gemma Padley / An unlikely gallery: the ruined fort opening itself up to art

April 2018

At the end of April, Coalhouse Fort in East Tilbury, Essex, will become an art gallery – of sorts. I say ‘of sorts’ because the 144-year fort does not in any way resemble a conventional exhibition space. Not in the slightest. At the end of an unassuming road in a rather unremarkable suburban village is a network of tumbledown outbuildings, vaulted chambers and eerie corridors – once military barracks – now slowly being reclaimed by nature. The fort has a colourful history: once used as domestic accommodation, it was a location for Batman Begins and featured on the TV programme, Most Haunted. Closed in 1956, it was acquired by Thurrock Council and used for a time by a shoe company as a storage facility.

Caught between a military past and its current use as a tourist attraction and cultural space, the fort and its identity are gradually changing. On the one hand Coalhouse Fort is falling apart, it is vulnerable and fragile – the antithesis to its original role as a once-robust military base; but at the same time, efforts are being made to make the fort relevant again – to give it a new lease of life, a new identity.

A committed team of volunteers has been working to restore and maintain the site since the early 1980s and parts of the fort are able to house artworks. But the sprawling fort could not be further from a traditional gallery. This is, however, what makes it so wonderfully enticing – it is a space full of artistic possibility – but it also presents huge challenges for anyone mad enough to stage an exhibition, not least because drilling into the structure or going into the ground anywhere on this protected site is strictly prohibited.

Several months ago I was invited by artist and lecturer Michael Whelan to curate a pop-up exhibition at Coalhouse Fort. Intrigued by his proposal, I was interested to hear more about the project and to see the site. Whelan had happened upon the fort some months before and was working with the council to digitise its rich archive of photographs, maps, documents, and military-related artefacts. The pop-up exhibition would, I learned, be part of a wider project called NEW: DEFENCE, which involved making the newly digitised archive available to the public as well as running a series of artist residencies at the fort – all part of a drive to preserve Coalhouse Fort’s important cultural and historical legacy.  

I found myself carried away by this mysterious old building surreptitiously located at the edge of the Thames Estuary. I later discovered the characterful fort had never seen any conflict; its only role had been as a deterrent. The more I read about Coalhouse Fort’s history, the more interested I became in this perplexing place – what one journalist called: ‘the fort that never fought’.

There had been, I learned from historian Victor T.C. Smith, “anti-invasion defences” at East Tilbury since at least the early 15th century, and between 1539 and 1540 a small blockhouse was built – the first artillery fortification at East Tilbury. This was, Smith writes, “part of a group of fortifications intended to block the Thames against an enemy fleet” and came about as a result of a fear of continental invasion. But, most interestingly, by the time the fort was armed in 1875, “it was already becoming technically out-dated, and within a decade, practically obsolete”.

How strange that a military site primed to respond to attack “never fired in anger”, to quote journalist Mike Kemp, and instead became “a crumbling monument to man’s fear of war”. The opportunity to see how it might be possible to transform this symbol of military deterrence into a creative space was too good to pass up.

Working loosely around the theme of ‘defence’, eight UK-based artists – Tom Brannigan, Victoria Coster, Felicity Hammond, Laurynas Karmalavicius, Corinne Silva, Dafna Talmor, Alastair Thain and Samuel Zealey – who work across photography, film, sculpture, painting, and installation, were invited to contribute existing work relevant to the theme or create new artworks in response to the fort, its surrounding landscape and archive.

The first challenge was to find a way to make the site intelligible to visitors, so we decided to limit where the works would be shown: in the gatehouse by the entrance, across two of the casemates (gun emplacements) on the first floor, and in the dark, dank magazines (where ammunition and shells were stored). The idea is to take visitors on a kind of journey through the fort – to encourage people to reconsider how we engage with these kinds of spaces and what their future purpose might be. To this end we commissioned a map to be made as part of a booklet about the pop-up to help visitors navigate their way across the site and uncover the artworks tucked away in the building. I like the idea of the fort opening itself up to new possibilities – letting down its guard in a very literal, physical way – and finding ways to play with visitors’ expectations of a space like this that was never intended to host 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. Tom Brannigan for example has created “anthropomorphic photographic sculptures” from objects in the archive, inspired by the knowledge that families lived for a time at the fort after World War Two. Dafna Talmor’s site-specific response involved photographing the grounds around the fort from a high vantage point, “removing any obviously manmade elements [and so] interrupting the so-called purity of the landscape.” She continues: “Re-configuring the landscape by embedding multiple views and obliterating any indication of the military structures that originally occupied this space, the collaged images will be presented as postcards, pointing to the re-packaging, repurposing and preservation of this now defunct fort as heritage site and tourist destination.” And there is Felicity Hammond’s In Defence of Industry, a photo collage presented as a towering lightbox, which “uses hidden histories to talk about our potential nuclear future.” Originally created as a part of Signal Film and Media’s Lost Stations project – the work invites viewers to reflect on how we defend ourselves and at what cost.

My hope is that this tumbledown old fort will be an inspiring space in which to experience art. After all, as star curator Hans Ulrich Obrist said: “Art can appear where we expect it least.”

 – Gemma Padley


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.