Debris degrades and degradation can be measured but can art be this measurement? Orford Ness in Suffolk, a former atomic weapons mechanism research and testing facility, doesn’t ask these questions but the place has attracted such a huge number of artists to its shores that the question of creativity and its role as a reaction to such politically doused spaces cannot help but be evoked. I’m interested in such relationships because I believe they can be increasingly perceived in spaces that are the opposite to places such as Orford Ness; that a work that earnestly looks at even the most habited areas will, if earnestly questioning them, reflect the natural woe of the (largely western) history residing underneath the glossy, hyper-consumptive surfaces. Orford, however, does not have a surface as such, more of a shingly residue of contrasts between the rusted remnants of apocalyptical technology and the pleasing indifference of a natural and resilient ecosystem.
Jane and Louise Wilson’s series of works looking at the landscape of the Ness and the technological history of its make-up is a prime example of an intensely natural display of this relationship where a place is so topographically attached to its human history that to create work about it requires that history to be a major component. This isn’t just because the various laboratories used to test such dangerous weapons have been naturally left to crumble at the bequest of the National Trust and are still earnestly visible with their extremely distinctive, almost Brutalist designs, but because making a visual work reacting to the place without questioning or responding to the work that went on here would be propaganda-like in its white-washing.
Though Blind Landings (named after the experimental unit that worked in the area during the Cold War) largely manifested in onsite sculptures and sound pieces placed throughout the laboratories, it is in the collage-collated photographs where Blind Landings as a thematic meme is at its most interesting. Video footage of the artists installing the work shows how precarious the space is but, essentially, the video shows how well the Wilsons’ sculptures sit within the space. The long, measurement lines of black and white striped yard sticks, hinting at the various impact and landing experiments done on the Ness – at the labs here, at RAF Woodbridge down the road, and the adjacent Cobra Mist aeronautical site – creating strong lines in spaces where the dilapidated wear of the coastal climate has already spliced together girders and other fragments of buildings into a variety of contortions.
Louise Wilson suggested that “We wanted to site some sculptures that sort of referenced the past in a sense.” (2013) though if the work had simply done this, then it’s debatable whether it would have succeeded as the space, as suggested, is aesthetically powerful enough to overwhelm modern technology and drag things back to a cold-war mentality (or at least an impression). Blind Landings works instead because it becomes temporally camouflaged, highlighting the past intentions that the space was designed for whilst simultaneously mimicking the future/current condition that the buildings would find themselves in. This cross-temporal matching seems to be a natural reaction to the space as any readers of W.G. Sebald’s The Rings Of Saturn will be keenly aware of.
When Sebald walked upon the site in 1992 before it had been bought up by the National Trust, he suggested in his writing that: “But the closer I came to these ruins, the more any notion of a mysterious isle receded, and the more I imagined myself amidst the remains of our own civilisation after its extinction in some future catastrophe.” (1992, p.). Sebald was the perfect writer to visit Orford in that the melancholy of the past was always colouring and augmenting his perception of the present to the point where his writing resembled a nuanced, sage-like seventh sight to see further than others, both backwards and forwards. Here, he has built the link between the state of the buildings today and the potential outcome of their past primary purpose, even later hinting at the shape of the lights in one laboratory to be resembling “showerheads”. Sebald could see the holocaust that had already happened in the 20th century and also numerous other holocausts that could have happened but it was the stark tangibility of the latter invoked by the place itself that connected the two timescales together.
Blind Landings follows this relationship onwards in its photographs by using a collage technique to further break the shapes of the place with even more yard measures. The geometric patterns map onto the images of the buildings and the pagodas, becoming reminiscent of the aerial mapping images commonly associated with the site, especially of Cobra Mist. The act is, however, temporal, but it is a far more circular act than Sebald’s writing because the newly added patterns on the photographic works deliberately stand out from the grainy 35mm images on which they were initially placed. Whereas the sculptures and the soundwork are clearly intended to heighten the dereliction of the places through an ironic anachronism of new but subtle additions to the laboratories, the photo collages create an entirely circular logic by following Sebald into that parallel perceptive dimension that he slipped into when visiting the Ness and revelling in its potential, of which the history is measured; the dereliction of both time and space being documented yard by yard.
The skyline broken by a measured yard,
Haunted by rusted machines, humming with the wind through perforated alloy.
It could count the concrete inches of the target site,
but lost track when counting its wavelength pebbles.
Quantify the distance between each path,
Gauging the gauge of the sandy dust,
Mingled in the bodies of the could- have -been,
Under the sonar glare of the Marsh Harrier
On graveyard duty.
Perspectives shadowed upon the meadow of iron,
The extinction measurements logged upon the tarmac fen.
A pagoda roof designed to collapse,
inwards upon its occupants, upon civilisation contortioned.
Will the sea or the atom ignite first?