The New Defence team was founded by artist Michael Whelan, and in 2018, the year that marks the centenary of the end of the First World War, a pop-up art exhibition at historic Coalhouse Fort in East Tilbury, Essex, takes a fresh look at the theme of ‘defence’. Nine artists working across photography, sculpture, installation, film and sound will show existing work relating to the theme or new artworks made in response to the site itself and/or the fort’s rich archive of objects, documents and photographs, housed in Thurrock Museum, Grays. Making use of the dungeon-like magazines in the bowels of the building, dark and ghostly corridors, and casemates where guns would have stood, as well as the fort’s dedicated gallery space, NEW: DEFENCE takes visitors on a journey through an extraordinary historical site, inviting audiences to consider how we engage with these kinds of spaces, and what their future purpose might be.

The exhibition takes the 200-year-old fort itself and its location on the Essex peninsula, overlooking the River Thames, as its starting point. 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 redundant, being reclaimed by nature, and is vulnerable and fragile – the very antithesis to its original purpose. But at the same time a team of dedicated volunteers is working with the local council to save and preserve it – to make it relevant again, to give it a new lease of life, a new identity, a new purpose because of its heritage value and potential to be an exciting, engaging cultural space. It is this tension – between the fort’s past and its future possibilities – that provides the backbone of the exhibition.

Following on from the exhibition, there will be a summer of artist residencies, talks and educational workshops taking place at Coalhouse Fort. NEW: DEFENCE has been possible with the generous support of Heritage Lottery Fund and Arts Council England.

Words: Gemma Padley