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Posts from the ‘Orford Ness’ Category

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.

W.G. Sebald, Melancholy Poet & Travel Agent

Map Courtesy New York Times

The New York Times has jumped on the bandwagon that, until now, has largely been driven by the Guardian.  The Times has sent writer Rachel B. Doyle to go Rambling With W. G. Sebald in East Anglia with a copy of The Rings of Saturn as her guidebook.  A version of Doyle’s article, which appeared on the Times website yesterday April 22, will also appear in the April 24 Travel section of the Sunday print edition.  Doyle rambled by bicycle through Southwold, Dunwich, and Orford, and her article provides links to the websites of some of the key places, such as Somerleyton Hall, Southwold Sailors’ Reading Room, Orford Ness, and The Crown, an inn where Sebald liked to stay in Southwold.

Doyle’s self-effacing account relies largely on Sebald to provide the backstory to the places she – and he – visited. In this way, Doyle’s piece avoids being a facile exercise in literary voyeurism.  Instead, she manages to remain true to Sebald’s vision, especially in regard to the powerful attraction that ruins of all types held for him.  Doyle neatly contrasts two such ruins, Somerleyton Hall and Orford Castle.

Somerleyton Hall, a railway magnate’s mansion that had its heyday in the 19th century, represents the essential hollowness of social ambitions – wealth, caste, power.

But it was the Hall’s archaic oddities and waning splendor, its stuffed polar bears and old croquet mallets that charmed him immensely. It must have been uninviting, Sebald wrote, “when everything, from the cellar to the attic, from the cutlery to the waterclosets, was brand new, matching in every detail, and in unremittingly good taste. And how fine a place the house seemed to me now that it was imperceptibly nearing the brink of dissolution and silent oblivion.” Sebald was drawn to East Anglia by these very anachronisms, by physical evidence of the passage of time and the steady drift toward irrelevance that belied its past importance.

Orford Castle and nearby Orford Ness, on the other hand, were long the home of England’s top secret weapons experiments.  To Sebald, the place resembled “a penal colony” and Doyle finds it “still a shock to see an obsolete nuclear bomb on the floor of the information center.”  The dreary and dilapidated ruins at Orford become reminders of the worst of our political and territorial ambitions.

As Doyle points out, one of the core themes of  The Rings of Saturn is “the steady drift toward irrelevance,” which, Sebald seemed to be saying, was the only fitting end for human ambition and folly.  At the same time, Sebald could take delight – however melancholy – in the “dissolution” of places like Somerleyton Hall, while Orford stood for a horror of a completely different order.

“If you look out from the cliff-top across the sea towards where the town must once have been, you can sense the immense power of emptiness,” Sebald wrote. “Perhaps it was for this reason that Dunwich became a place of pilgrimage for melancholy poets of the Victorian age.”

The Times also provides a slide show of related photographs by Andrew Testa.  Doyle is the author of another Times travel piece, Norwich, England – a Getaway for Book Lovers, which I briefly wrote about in January.

Sebald, Snape Maltings, and Smith (as in Patti)

Located in the beautifully-named town of Snape Maltings, Aldeburgh Music is planning a weekend of film, music, conversation, and walks devoted to W.G. Sebald from January 28-30, 2011 called After Sebald – Place and Re-Enchantment: A Weekend Exploration.  Aldeburgh Music is a permanent performance center that has emerged out of the Aldeburgh Festival established in 1948 by Benjamin Britten, Peter Pears, and Eric Crozier.  (In his recent book The Rest Is Silence, music critic Alex Ross made a brief but strong connection between Sebald and Britten.)  Below are some of the details of the weekend, which I’ve extracted from the organization’s website.

Friday 28 January
Patience (After Sebald) – World Premiere
Written and directed by the award-winning filmmaker Grant Gee, Patience (After Sebald) is a multi-layered essay film on landscape, art, history, life and loss.  It offers a unique exploration of the life, work and influence of W.G. Sebald (1944–2001) via a long walk through coastal East Anglia tracking The Rings of Saturn. Visually and aurally innovative, Patience features contributions from Tacita Dean, Robert Macfarlane, Katie Mitchell, Rick Moody, Andrew Motion, Chris Petit, Iain Sinclair and Marina Warner.  After the screening, Grant Gee will be in conversation with prize-winning writer on place, Robert Macfarlane (The Wild Places).

Saturday 29 January
Towards Re-Enchantment – Symposium
A day-long enquiry into the landscapes of Suffolk, the spirit of place and its various meanings, taking Sebald as its foundation. Presentations, discussions
and readings with Robert Macfarlane and other leading writers.

Saturday 29 January
Max: A Tribute by Patti Smith
Internationally renowned for her visionary creativity and commitment, the iconic musician, poet, writer and cultural activist Patti Smith needs no
introduction. In an exclusive concert created for this weekend, she will respond to Sebald’s book-length poem After Nature in an intimate evening of song and spoken word performance.

Sunday 30 January
Orford Ness Walk

This singular landscape has inspired many artists, including Sebald, whose visit, recorded in The Rings of Saturn, captures perfectly its unsettling presence and buried past. Take advantage of a very rare opportunity to explore this haunting location in the heart of winter.

Tickets. Weekend tickets (best tickets, excluding Walk and Lunch) are available at £55. Only Weekend tickets will be available from Wednesday 1 September; booking for individual events opens Monday 18 October.

More on Grant Gee’s film:

Grant Gee’s film Patience (After Sebald) is part of a new series of commissions from a group called artevents as part of their project The Re-Enchantment:

The Re-Enchantment is the first national project exploring culture and the rural through original artistic commissions. This ambitious project seeks to interrogate the various meanings of ‘place’ in the twenty first century.  At a time when globalisation, the implications of extreme environmental change and the multiple alienations of modern society all threaten our sense of belonging, the importance of ‘place’ to the enhancement of identity and creative possibility in life and art cannot be underestimated. The Re-Enchantment aims to deliver an imaginative response through art, live performance, film and writing to one of the most pressing issues facing the contemporary world.

Note: On Saturday September 11, Gee will talk about his film with writer and critic Chris Darke and apparently will show clips at The British Library, as part of a one-day program Landscaping: Artists, Maps and Britain.