Orford Ness, UK

View of Black Beacon, site of Iain Chambers, Brian d’Souza, and Chris Watson’s Library of Sound, 2021, Orford Ness, UK. Photo: Johny Pitts.

View of Black Beacon, site of Iain Chambers, Brian d’Souza, and Chris Watson’s Library of Sound, 2021, Orford Ness, UK. Photo: Johny Pitts.


Orford Ness, UK

View of Black Beacon, site of Iain Chambers, Brian d’Souza, and Chris Watson’s Library of Sound, 2021, Orford Ness, UK. Photo: Johny Pitts.

SEPARATED FROM THE MAINLAND by a narrow stretch of the River Ore, Orford Ness is a wild strand of shingle on the Suffolk coast. From 1915 to 1993, it was a Ministry of Defense research laboratory developing technologies of war and death (radar, atomic weaponry) out of public view, its existence not even officially acknowledged. Today, the place feels vast and eerie, more Tarkovsky’s Zone, studded with disused buildings called things like Cobra Mist and Bomb Ballistics. And yet the spit of land we are talking about is only three square miles and sits across the water from the perfectly picturesque village of Orford. Its ecology is fragile and unique, and it’s now a nature reserve protected by the National Trust, which has adopted a policy of “managed decay” for the man-made structures and offers limited access to birders, walkers, and the curious. From August to October of last year, Orford Ness was the home of a group exhibition, “Afterness,” spearheaded by Artangel, a London-based organization that commissions site-specific artworks (projects by Brian d’Souza and the duo Rachel Pimm and Graham Cunnington remain viewable on the show’s website).

Orford Ness under military control was a place for looking and listening. It’s a place that at first seems empty and silent until you watch and hear. Then it’s full (of weather, above all, and of what weather does to time and memory). Much of the work in “Afterness” engaged with observation and auditory trace, secrets and surveillance. The Library of Sound, 2021—a project by composer Iain Chambers, d’Souza, and legendary Cabaret Voltaire founding member Chris Watson, housed in the strangely truncated wooden lookout tower called Black Beacon—deployed remarkable “field recordings” that Watson has been making on the site for more than a decade. These ambient documents (a tap dripping, the cry of a gull), beating out the rhythm of time while you watch and wait, were a testament to the difference between hearing and listening. Different species of noise, human and nonhuman, were contained in a newly configured and immersive environment. Everything, from the building we were in to the animals we heard, seemed to be endangered, but also saved and conserved in the recording of it. The salvaged sounds were bits of wreckage, immaterial analogues of the military and construction remains dispersed across the shingle.

Tatiana Trouvé, The Residents, 2021, mixed media, stone, sodalite, marble, bronze, painted aluminum. Installation view, Orford Ness, UK. Photo: Thierry Bal.

As is usually the case with its commissions, Artangel worked with the artists in “Afterness” over a period of two to three years. The best-known participant was Tatiana Trouvé, whose installation The Residents, 2021, occupied the derelict and partly flooded Lab 1 and was by far the most baroque of the projects. Several sculptures—huge phallic bronzes half-submerged in the putrid water—created a mise-en-scène that evoked a postapocalyptic future. Abandoned quilts sported designs that appeared to diagram mysterious systems, geological or cartographic. The work as a whole dramatized the idea of mapping, or rather posed the enigma of what it was that was being mapped and measured here: a geographical site or a lost era? The sculptures in their drowned world were a powerful cocktail of J. G. Ballard and Paul Virilio’s Bunker Archaeology.

The sculptures in their drowned world were a powerful cocktail of J. G. Ballard and Paul Virilio’s Bunker Archaeology.

The success of “Afterness” lay in the fact that the works didn’t try to compete with the environment but engaged with it, generating productive speculation on what it means to make art in a place like this. Most of the works served to highlight the strangeness of the architecture that contained them. The built structures on Orford Ness are giant sculptures in their own right, many banked up with roof-high mounds of shingle escarpment to contain the blasts of the bombs that were once tested inside them. Emma McNally’s large-scale drawing in the Armory featured intersecting concentric circles traced by hand with remarkable delicacy, but the graphite was also thick, like metal. It was a drawing (of a vast lunar landscape? An astronomical map of the heavens?) but also a bulky looming shape, a sculpture hovering in a darkened space.

Emma McNally, The river that flows nowhere, like a sea, 2021, graphite on paper. Installation view, Orford Ness, UK. Photo: Thierry Bal.

The artist-choreographer-dancer Paul Maheke calls his standout 2021 film Mauve, Jim and John a work of “hauntology.” It was inspired by a story of UFO sightings in December 1980 that were associated at the time with the radar station on Orford Ness. The two male dancers who play the protagonists are based on the two soldiers stationed there who made the original reports. Their bodies entwine, pull, lean, prop, push each other in an elaborate doubling and seem to braid their way through the forest and across to the foreland. This method of weaving bodies into landscape is powerful, intensely melancholic, and tender.

“Afterness” was only the second Artangel project for which several artists have been commissioned to work on a single site. (For the first, in 2016, participants created works at Reading Prison, where Oscar Wilde was incarcerated.) The show coincided with the announcement that James Lingwood and Michael Morris, who have been directing Artangel since 1991, will step down later this year. It furnished an appropriate occasion on which to take stock of Artangel’s influence. Since its inception in the 1980s, Artangel has been amassing its own archive and has become worthy of study in its own right, at once symptomatic and diagnostic of the art of the thirty-plus years in which it has been operating. “Afterness” was consistent with the organization’s long-standing vision and commitment to offering a critical counterpoint to prevailing ideas about public art. From the outset, Lingwood and Morris were very much attuned to new formations within art practice, finding and making use of empty or abandoned spaces, primarily in cities. There were many such venues available during the economic downturn of the early ’90s, creating possibilities for work that would investigate or expose what more traditional public art so often serves to elide, including legacies of imperialism. Gabriel Orozco’s Empty Club, 1996, for instance, occupied a Georgian building in Piccadilly in which gentlemen of means had once gathered; Orozco’s phantasmagorical interventions were like a cuckoo in the nest of empire. Over the past decade, Artangel has begun to commission works for international sites. For her Library of Water, 2007–, in Iceland, Roni Horn gathered samples of glacial meltwater to foreground the effects of climate change. The piece could almost be a forerunner of “Afterness,” an exhibition in which the politics of nature and climate were vividly shown to be thoroughly entangled with human activities that have receded in time and yet refuse to fade into the past.

Paul Maheke, Mauve, Jim and John, 2021, HD video, color, sound, 28 minutes 5 seconds.

Collectively, the show’s artists worked at the fault line between conservation and destruction, animating the ecology and history of the site as a setting for both of those processes. Sometimes in ominous silence, as in McNally’s installation, and sometimes audibly, as in Library of Sound, the question was raised: What can art be in the face of a technology of death and extinction? Thus “Afterness” opened onto a larger set of issues: what W. G. Sebald called the natural history of destruction, surveillance technologies, new forms of warfare even more lethal than those developed in these collapsing buildings.

It’s par for the course now to expect global events to have scuppered long-planned initiatives like this one and perhaps even to have made them appear obsolete, artifacts of a distant epoch before the pandemic. But “Afterness” took place during the pandemic and seemed all the more urgent for that. Nothing here directly addressed Covid, but everything prompted us to think deeply about humanity’s place in an ecosystem that includes viruses as well as gulls and aquatic plants. The visible acceleration of the climate emergency makes work about weather, entropy, and exposure nothing if not timely. But I think what was most effective here also exceeded topical relevance, speaking to the need for a poetics reflecting precisely on the temporal as well as climatic implications of the militarization of nature, of permanent war and ceaseless surveillance. There was something necessarily untimely in the way the installations in “Afterness” created pockets of stillness and stasis, and in the way their dispersal across the landscape allowed you—forced you—to slow down.

Briony Fer is a writer and curator and a professor of art history at University College London.