In July I visited Orford Ness, the former military testing site on the Suffolk coast. In the 1930s it was one of the places where the technology that became known as RADAR (RAdio Detection And Ranging, now normalised as an actual word, “radar”) was developed, then it was a base for the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment, and finally it was a powerful radio installation responsible until 2012 for broadcasting the BBC World Service to Europe. It’s now owned by the National Trust. Access is severely restricted and visitor numbers are strictly controlled because of the danger from unexploded ordinance, and to protect an extremely rare and fragile habitat of vegetated shingle. It’s also situated on a long spit that has to be accessed by boat. As you’ll see from the pictures, probably the only way to describe it if you’ve not been there is as a kind of temperate maritime desert. I was there on an extremely rare hot, dry and sunny day when you could walk around without being blown over sideways. Not much can live on the Ness permanently. Despite growing up not far away from Orford, and living in the vicinity on and off over the years, the inaccessibility and isolation of the place plus the fact that I don’t have a car had always conspired to keep me away from a place that I found fascinating.
The reason for my long overdue visit was a kind of professionals and press jolly for some installation work that had been made there by the artists Jane and Louise Wilson. I really like the Wilsons’ work, generally speaking. Having worked on my own art projects under the aegis of public bodies, universities, and English Heritage– another of Britain’s historic caretaking agencies– I can well imagine the Wilsons being invited and commissioned to work at Orford Ness and then instantly being stymied by having a million and one things they can’t do dropped on them. Jane and Louise themselves seemed perfectly OK as people, albeit in a slightly too serious way, a kind of actressy or diva-ish kind of way. Definitely intelligent, talented and thoughtful individuals, though. Despite saying all that, on this occasion I just found their work extremely slight and they didn’t substantively answer or address any comments or questions that people had, except by reeling off art world jargon and general cobblers that even they themselves didn’t seem to buy. It’s not that I think art should be so literal and instrumentalised that x investment should always multiply into y quantities of tangible product, or that artists should be on message and visibly productive in the same literal way as a teacher, a police officer or a civil servant should be. I really don’t. That’s stupid, and impossible, and some of an artist’s value lies in her or him existing outside of such concerns.
But the main issue is that Orford Ness is so Ballardian, so sci-fi, so grim and weird, so Mad Max, so Dr Strangelove, (and so on, ad infinitum…) that I think you’d need to go incredibly big to make any kind of impression beyond the already massive impact of just walking among such ominous, cryptic ruins in this flat, bleak landscape and wondering what exactly went on there during those top secret decades. Just look at the place. It’s a place for the monumental, a place of brute force both from nature and deployed against nature. It’s not a place for the kind of subtle, wispy conceptual conceits that might just about stand up in a white cube gallery, provided nobody breathed too hard.
Note that the Wilsons’ art work is not visible in any of these photos. Honestly you might not notice it unless Jane or Louise happened to be there and could show you, and it’s not there any more. Don’t bother trying to find it, either in these pictures or in the real world! All photographs by me, 2012. It’s actually a bit of a challenge to shoot anything at Orford Ness. Even with our slightly privileged access, it was still hard to get close to most of the buildings because you must keep to the few paths that are definitely safe, as opposed to the rest of the site which is potentially lethal.
The so-called “pagodas” seem to have semi officially acquired their name from the military, for fairly obvious reasons. Most of the buildings’ partial burial in the shingle is to insulate the surrounding area from any explosions, shockwaves, fires, collapses or other mishaps inside. The columns were designed to blow out in the event of a particularly large explosion within, causing the massive concrete slabs to slam down like the lid of a sarcophagus, sealing the building. The shingle would presumably go some way towards filling any other gaps. Although in some ways it’s just pragmatic, there’s also something quite chilling about designing a building that way. It’s easy to imagine being terminally entombed in one of these things after some horrendous catastrophe, pebbles cascading in through a crack in the wall as your life ebbs away. It is for me, anyway. Maybe I’m morbid. OK, I know I’m morbid. We can at least take comfort from the fact that it never seems to have been necessary for anyone to engage tomb mode.