On a few shores in the UK, you’ll find Minefield Control Towers, concrete structures that served as a British defense system during both World Wars. Hexagon shaped at the top, approximately 6.7m in height, these towers controlled the minefields laid in the Thames Estuary to protect Britain against any enemy coming from the North Sea. Now protected heritage sites, one of them is found in the Coalhouse Fort in Essex, a defense station originally built in the 1860s to ward off any sea attack.
This area located in southeast England is substantially rich in history. To highlight its stories, from September 17 through October 2, 2016, contemporary artists and filmmakers, both local and international, are responding to the cultural landscape in the first annual Estuary arts festival. Artist Heidi Wigmore has used the Minefield Control Tower within the Coalhouse Fort to create a site-specific parallel on military and mysticism, with humanity at its core.
“When I first saw this building, it immediately suggested to me the form of a stupa, which is the Buddhist structure which sits outside places of human habitation,” she tells The Creators Project.
Wigmore’s installation, playfully renamed as Mind Control Tower, sees the timeworn defense system transformed with ‘prayer flags’—pieces of fabric draped around a building, inscribed with good omens in order to ward off evil spirits.
“The structure also exists to defend what is perceived to be evil, or what was perceived as evil in WWII,” she says. “That sense of the unseen enemy, which never did actually come up the Thames, but everyone was ready for the possibility. So all of this here existed to defend.”
While in the backdrop of England’s gray skies the structure looks eerie, almost menacing, Wigmore has created a shrine to celebrate the protective nature of its origins, using the idea of hostile combat mixed with spiritual positivity.
“Initially you think of those two things being polar opposites, but the more I thought about them, the more similarities I found,” she says. “Ritual and symbolism are both really important in military and mystic contexts, for example, the flag. I intended these to be prayer flags but they also have a look and aesthetics of military flag waving.”
Around 120 flags in total have been designed with a variety of shapes and sizes of shoes, a symbol Wigmore has used once more to give mention of the area’s vast social and economic past. Digitally created on fabric using a blend of hand rendered processes for printing, such as laser cutting and metallic foil, the shoes represent two things: the Bata shoe factory, which provided industrial change to the Essex area in the 1930s, and the recent discovery of the leather shoes from the HMS London shipwreck. For the latter, Wigmore obtained original scans from the HMS London excavation team to reproduce on some of the flag designs. All of the designs come in a series of five to emblemize the five elements existing in Buddhist prayer flags.
“There’s something very human about shoes, obviously the wear and tear and the marks and traces of the wearer,” says Wigmore. “I see it as a positive motif because it’s that sense of the human imprint. It’s that sense of we were here, leave your footprint.”
A military march soundscape accompanied the presentation of the installation on September 25, 2016.
Mind Control Tower was a one-day installation for the Estuary 2016 festival. A selection of the flags will now be permanently installed at the Tilbury Cruise Terminal in Essex and the project may be viewed online here. See more of Heidi Wigmore's work here.