Review on Artangel Afterness
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The Review on Artangel Afterness
Orford Ness, a spit of 10 miles of desolate gravel, ringed by icy waves and accessible only by boat, is without a doubt England’s creepiest headland. For decades it was an experimental laboratory for nuclear projects and the site of covert military operations during two world wars.
Radar was first tested here in the 1930s. Scientists tried to invent artificial clouds in the 1940s to baffle the Germans. And what happened on this windswept island during the Cold War remains so enigmatic—yet so embodied in the horizon of mysterious structures still visible from the Suffolk coastline—that the Ness is still known as the Island of Secrets. .
It is therefore no surprise that artists must be fascinated. Orford Ness is a place of the imagination before you even cross the turbulent waters. Some of those involved in Afterness – with its JG Ballard play on aftermath and emptiness – were never here at all, prevented from traveling due to the pandemic. All have been invited to respond to this mysterious no-man’s-land by Artangel, facilitators of so many wonderful projects, from Jeremy Deller’s The Battle of Orgreave to Oscar Wilde’s 2016 memorial in Reading Prison. But I doubt there could ever have been so much competition from the actual location.
The past is visible everywhere on Orford Ness. Equipped with a map and headphones, you will be guided across the island from one building to another. Barbed wire unfolds like bottlenose dolphins. Coiled metal loops that once carried inscrutable signals lie about like rusty knitwear. The stones under the feet are scorched, strangely discolored or strewn with artillery fragments.
The National Trust may have acquired it in 1994, but the ornate oakleaf logo looks almost frivolous among menacing MOD signs warning hikers of no-go areas with unexploded ordnance. The ground is littered with the craters of nameless explosions.
As you climb to the top of the Bomb Ballistics building, you’ll hear the howl of the sea breeze on your headphones. But it turns out to be completely ambient. Lumbering along the shore, you can see an Edward Hopper house in the distance: a lone figure, overlooking the water. It is also real, and not an art installation, although just as fantastic in its way. Because like so many buildings on this island – the house, the windmill, the stadium – it’s not what it seems, but a different kind of sinister laboratory.
British artist Alice Channer has installed a giant steel bramble in a ruined concrete shelter, whose razor-sharp thorns poke out of shattered windows. It does its job efficiently enough: it mimics the overgrown crops of thornbush and barbed wire, and the relationship between them. And the title — Lethality and Vulnerability — refers to secret trials conducted on Orford Ness in the mid-20th century to test the susceptibility of military aircraft to attack.
Italian artist Tatiana Trouvé has acquired Laboratory 1, built in 1956 for the testing program of the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment. She has also conducted in-depth research into the effects of nuclear exhibits on geology, nature and human existence. Blankets adorned with rippling blue rock layers double as evocations of rising seas.
The laboratory is a huge structure, destroyed and homeless. You enter on wooden planks through flooded corridors and the interior is astonishing: high and classic, like a concrete Colosseum. But Trouvé’s post-apocalyptic installation of shoes and shabby clothes, of suitcases sinking in puddles and emblematic suitcases raze it all to the ground, like a melodramatic episode of the TV series Survivors.
Much more powerful and subtle is a great work by British artist Emma McNally in the chapel-like interior of the armory. A long cloud of silvery substance hanging low in the obscured space—shadowed and occasionally shimmering, as if the moonlight were being shot through—this shape is in fact made purely of paper, crumpled up and covered in intricate graphite drawings that evoke the cosmos. from atom to planet. Like the weather, it seems to change as the light shifts. It could in itself be that desideratum – the artificial cloud.
Movies will come online, via Artangel, when Afterness opens next week. There will also be song cycles and a soundtrack based on the gravel’s hidden geology. For now, visitors can climb up through the Black Beacon and take a seat at the rectangular peepholes that frame the sea in all its ever-changing colors, right where observers once sat to measure the ballistic properties of hydrogen bombs.
Inside the Beacon, a Library of Sound, curated by British musicians Iain Chambers, Chris Watson and Brian d’Souza, is based on Orford Ness field recordings: descending stairs, dropping pebbles, seagulls in the bizarre concrete pagodas where nuclear warheads were once tested . They soon begin to feel redundant. No shot of skylarks or even just the salty wind can compare to the reality outside.
Everything irresistibly asks a question on this island. Why are the poppies yellow and cerise, like a color blindness test? Why are there miniature deer in a reserve without trees? Why are the hares so big and what do they live on? What did the scientists really discover in these crumbling structures and who designed them? The answer to everything can almost be summed up in the title of the excellent work in Afterness – I See a Silence. A visitor experiencing Ilya Kaminsky’s soundwalk, I See a Silence (2021) on Orford Ness, Suffolk. A visitor experiencing Ilya Kaminsky’s soundwalk, I See a Silence (2021) on Orford Ness, Suffolk. Photo: Thierry Bal
This is a series of poems specially commissioned by the great Odessa-born writer Ilya Kaminsky. He seems to notice exactly what you see when you cross the island, this companion reciting the lines in your headphones: the rabbit running through the open door of Lab 1 and “leaving behind a spray of footsteps, soon filled with water” . The seagulls pick up the T-shirt on the bank: “throw it back and forth/ as if opening a big newspaper”. He portrays the loneliness of all walkers in this pounding coastal wind, unable to converse easily, seeing each other mainly as figures in the distance.
Who came on your boat, Kaminsky wonders, and “what do they look in their eyes when they walk (how to life? How to life?)”. On this nuclear site he writes, truthfully, “you’re starting to get philosophical”.
Afterness is in Orford Ness, Suffolk, on selected days from July 1st to October 30th. Tickets through the National Trust
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