The New Battery at High Down – one of the National Trust’s most exhilarating southern locations – is the site of an exciting new art installation that brings back to life the site’s instrumental role in Britain’s Space Programme.
Midnight, created by Tom Hall, Senior Lecturer at Arts University Bournemouth, has been designed for artSOUTH: collaborations. This ambitious visual art project, funded by Arts Council England, brings together artists from around the world, each of whom has created a newly commissioned artwork that celebrates southern England’s rich heritage and distinctive character in unexpected ways and places.
Tom collaborated with ex-employees of the old rocket testing facility at the New Battery, which once housed the British Space Programme in the 1950s and 1960s. Tom’s work with these ‘Rocket Men’ of the past has resulted in a cardboard reconstruction of a room at the testing site, designed as if it has been abandoned in a hurry.
The idea for this extraordinary project came about from a chance meeting between the artist when he was visiting the site, and ex-rocketeer (and now National Trust volunteer) Mike Elliott. Tom drew for inspiration upon archive photographs and intriguing technical discussions with Mike, mixed with captivating personal narratives about life at the rocket site:
“The project re-imagines the test site in the 1950s, when we were in the grips of the Cold War, and when the predictive ‘Doomsday Clock’ was set at its closest to midnight,” says Tom. “I have recreated the scene as it may have been, with the clocks set at midnight, the blast doors shut, and the test rooms abandoned.
“The room I have designed is an amalgam of places, memories and ideas that I have encountered whilst researching this project; a mix of reality and fiction that explores the possibilities of space travel.”
Tom’s design includes personal effects linked to the employees who worked here all, creating the feeling that the room’s inhabitants have only just left. A life-sized cardboard barrel of beer replicates the annual barrel given to the employees every year, and which can be seen being enjoyed by Mike Elliott and his colleague Phil Pearson in a surviving photograph from the 1950s. A life-sized cardboard banjo and trombone can also be seen – replicas of those used in the site band, the Unity Stompers.
Out-of-place historic objects, such as the American Civil War crutch and North Korean missile, echo the continuing uncertainty of political situations surrounding us today. Visitors can also explore a permanent exhibition in the underground rooms here, which tells the astonishing and little-known story of Britain’s Cold War ‘race for space’, when British-made rockets were tested here under conditions of great secrecy.
Ticketed event: 28 September: a coach tour to view three artSOUTH projects, including Tom Hall’s Midnight at the New Battery and a talk by Tom Hall at Quay Arts. Starting in Southampton, or join the coach in Newport, Isle ofWight. Visit artSOUTH to book tickets.
Midnight at the New Battery: 7 September to 1 November. A live webstream showing Tom making adjustments to the installation is available from 1 November to 1 December, via artSOUTH.