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Afterness @ Orford Ness

One of the latest projects of London-based Artangel Trust, which prides itself on going “where others fear to tread,” is Afterness at Orford Ness, a long, strangely angled spit of land on the Suffolk coast on England’s east side. In the 1920s, Orford Ness was taken over by Britain’s Ministry of Defence and over the next eighty or so years was used for a variety of often top-secret military experiments, including radio navigation and radar. It is now owned and operated by the National Trust, which tightly controls access to the land because of its fragile habitats and the site’s former military history.

W.G. Sebald famously described and inserted photographs of the visit he made to Orford Ness sometime in the early 1990s in The Rings of Saturn. He had a local fisherman ferry him over and leave him to wander the landscape and inspect the abandoned military ruins. “The closer I came to these ruins, the more any notion of a mysterious isle of the dead receded, and the more I imagined myself amidst the remains of our own civilization after its extinction in some future catastrophe. . . wandering among heaps of scrap metal and defunct machinery”

For Afterness, the artists Iain Chambers, Alice Channer, Graham Cunnington, Brian d’Souza, Axel Kacoutié, Ilya Kaminsky, Paul Maheke, Emma McNally, Rachel Pimm, Tatiana Trouvé, and Chris Watson have each done a site specific project at Orford Ness. Several artists have made work that can also be experienced online. When you’re browsing the website, simply click on the “Read More” button for each artist to see what options exist.

The reviews have been fantastic. I especially like what Laura Cumming wrote about Afterness in The Guardian earlier this summer. Here’s part of one paragraph:

Everything irresistibly proposes a question on this island. Why are the poppies yellow and cerise, like a colour-blindness test? Why are there miniature deer in a reserve without any trees? Why are the hares so huge and what do they live on? What did the scientists really discover in these crumbling structures, and who designed them?

Afterness continues through October 30. Visits to Orford Ness are limited to certain days of the week and access is by ferry only. See this page on the Artangel website for more details on how to visit and purchase tickets.

For a different artist’s response to Orford Ness, take a look at Emily Richardson’s six-minute video Cobra Mist over on Vimeo. Made in 2008, Cobra Mist explores the landscape of Orford Ness using a 16mm anamorphic camera lens and time-lapse and motion control techniques.

The lighthouse that appears in Cobra Mist was decommissioned in 2013 and demolished in 2020. Upon learning this, the pop musician Thomas Dolby (who I listened to endlessly in the 80s and 90s) made a documentary film about it called The Invisible Lighthouse, which he took on the road through the US and UK, accompanying the film with live music, narration, and sound effects. There is a great five-minute teaser at his website.

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