i have wanted to visit Orford Ness for ages, but a planned trip never materialised until last week.
the artist Anya Gallaccio was recently commissioned to create a series of new works for this year’s SNAP exhibition, at Snape Maltings and at Orford Ness, as part of the Aldeburgh Arts Festival and the WW1 centenary [14-18 Now].
this is the sign i saw on arriving at the car park in the picturesque village of Orford. i know that Orford Ness was once a secret military testing site, and an air of mystery still lingers, but… i feel a little on edge about my visit to the secret Ness.
a few minutes ride on a small ferry boat, and as we disembark at the Ness’s jetty i first notice whats looks to be the decaying rudder and stern of an old wooden boat sunk deep into the mud. it looks like the tail end of a crashed aeroplane or the skeletal remains of a small whale, but i couldn’t ascertain its story from the ranger. it also seems to be another warning sign of what might lie ahead. looking at the picture again [zooming in], i can just about make out the first part of the inscription: i think it says ‘tuesday’.
on the guided tour [the red route on the NT map] we first visit the ‘Bomb Ballistics’ building, a brick structure with an exterior metal staircase and a viewing platform [but i didn’t take a snap of it].
it is here that we encounter the first of Anya Gallaccio’s large photographic installations. the short story is that Gallaccio acquired some Ness shingle [a small bag of pebbles] from a site ranger after a recent safe bomb-disposal, and she wanted to create a work which referenced the ecology of the site and its military history. it is unclear how or if Gallaccio herself shattered the pebbles into much smaller pieces, but using an electron microscope she zoomed in, and the resulting scaled-up images of the fractured, damaged pebbles are returned to their original site, reflecting the fragile context of this windswept bleak landscape.
my camera, still stuck on the high contrast text setting, captures this vista quite well. up close, the printed images dissolve to a fuzzy surface abstraction, and i become more aware of the print and texture of the fabric than the suggestion of a barren or traumatised landscape in the photograph…
these are gigantic photographs, printed onto a mesh fabric [a bit like airtex], that gently billow and seem to breathe in the sea breeze, effortlessly mirroring the shingle, the sea and the sky, occasionally glinting silver as the sunlight catches them [it is a warm sunny day]. set at an angle they seem to communicate with something unknown, something out there…
i like the concept, but will the interest last? it feels like visual poetry by association, meaning conveyed through an explanation of context and process. the press release outlines the context but is written in the absence of the work. that these works are open to various interpretations seems to be an integral part of the work. greatly magnified images of bomb-shattered pebbles also echo shrapnel, shell-shock, body trauma, the destruction of war or ecological disaster, and even the nearby eroding shoreline’s battle with the encroaching sea. it also made me consider – quite naively – i’m no geologist! – that sand, silt and sediment is rock broken down, slowly pulverised through centuries of changes in the atmosphere, in the surrounding soil or vegetation, water, heat, and so on. with time everything changes.
this second photograph was taken on another part of the Ness, but i have forgotten exactly where, maybe near the Black beacon tower..? again, they seem to reference radar technology or radio transmissions. the photographs [stretched on metal frames like canvases] are all firmly sand-ballasted into place, but the panels are intended to be ephemeral structures in this location [on show for the month of june].
i understood how the images were made and how the back story artfully links the present with the past, nature with technology, aerial surveillance with some explosive devices apparently still buried in the shingle [one such device is 26 feet down, i am told, and there are no immediate plans to excavate the area].
the artist has been present, the artist has intervened in the landscape [contemporary artists are always intervening], but the artist has left the buildings alone. the NT wardens are happy with this art installation as it will bring visitors and new revenue, supporting the valuable work they do in managing this natural habitat, allowing the buildings to slowly decay as nature settles back in.
onwards and upwards… as i listen-in on a short explanation of Gallaccio’s work situated next to the Ballistics building, i discern a low melancholic hum; it’s the strong breeze blowing through the metal parts of the exterior structure [but i didn’t take a snap of it]. one of the wardens tells me that it plays a perfect C.
a short while later, as people in the group clunk and clank their way up the metal staircase to the viewing areas, the location acquires an eerie sonic discordance. the vista looks even more desolate from this vantage point, and a large window perfectly frames the scene, like a readymade art installation video… up another level and there is a corner-shaped window through which to discreetly survey the flat shingle landscape once again.
what of the structural detritus and debris that has been left to naturally disintegrate and decay into this liminal landscape? such as this rusty tangle of coils looking like some tumbleweed that has rolled in from the sea. it is a rust graveyard…
but we are warned to stay on the path and not to stray onto the potentially explosive shingle.
the final location on the guided tour is a building known as ‘Laboratory One’. it was used for bomb-testing in the 1950s, a thick-walled chamber encased in a high mound with just the roof structure showing. the entrance to the main chamber is cropped off lower left in the photograph below. two more of Gallaccio’s large-scale photographs are situated left and right of the entrance [but i didn’t take a snap of it].
by this point, i’ve lost track of how many Gallaccio pebble photographs there are here – five, six, seven, eight? – because every building is a new exploration and the large scale artworks become a secondary interest.
as we walk through the entrance tunnel it’s becoming too much like a scene from the Tarkovsky film, Stalker – there is a vibrant almost neon green glow of fresh vegetation enclosed within the white flaky stained walls of the central chamber. someone mentioned they had visited Orford Ness before but hadn’t noticed such a green.
the vivid appearance of green is absent in my grainy black and white pictures. without my sparkling new reading spectacles i can’t quite work out the tiny picture icons to change camera settings – but curiously it prompts me to remember odd things. i am also pleasantly surprised by my ability to take pictures in bright light as it’s impossible to see anything on a shiny screen – it’s usually pot luck [and taking three pictures of everything].
i watch a bird flying in and out of the far end room. it is a fascinating building with all the traces of its inner workings and circuitry still evident on the walls, and what little remains of the roof, providing easy access for the birds. there are many other buildings on the Ness that we didn’t get to see, such as the pagoda-like structures near the shore and the lighthouse [now out of bounds].
although it seems abandoned it is not lifeless. it reminds me of a nature documentary i watched on the wolves near chernobyl [wildlife in the exclusion zone]. it’s nature doing its thing, slowly adapting and evolving… but my grammar is slipping between then and now.
i humbly noted down later that i saw teasels, yellow horned poppies, red valerian, elder, and some unusual grey mossy lichen [moss or lichen, i can’t be sure]. and then there were birds. i saw egrets, and two swans, and was told there were barn owls nesting nearby, which prompted me to ask what barn owls were called before barns were invented. best answer: they originally nested in hollowed out trees, so maybe hollow tree owls.
three hours later, and it’s time to head back to the jetty. on the walk back, i furtively pick up a very small pebble i see by the edge of the path as a souvenir; it does not look like a suspicious object.