Artist's Record Of Fear Haunts The Remote Orford Ness

By Paul Fitzpatrick | 12 September 2005
Shows a photo of the view from a rectangular window over Orford Ness.

Black Beacon by Louise K Wilson.

Keeping it strictly hush hush, Paul Fitzpatrick headed over to Orford Ness to examine the latest experiments off the Suffolk coast.

The haunting landscape of Orford Ness is a place few who have visited will ever forget. This remote island off the Suffolk coast was the scene of some of Britain's most important military experiments during the 20th century and now artist Louise K Wilson has installed her new work, A Record of Fear, on it.

It's part of a wider scheme set up by The National Trust in partnership with commissionseast and English Heritage. Contemporary Art in Historic Places saw Wilson and fellow artists Imogen Stidworthy and Richard Wentworth invited to create work inspired by outstanding historic sites in the east of England: Felbrigg Hall in Norfolk, Dunstable Downs and De Grey Mausoleum in Bedfordshire and Orford Ness.

The artists’ work will be on site until the end of October 2005 (end of September 2005 for Orford Ness).

Shows a photo of the view of tall building on Orford Ness as seen through the viewfinder of a film camera.

View of Black Beacon by Louise K Wilson.

"This is the first time that Orford's secret past will have been brought to life through a contemporary art exhibition on site," said Grant Lohoar, National Trust Property Manager at Orford Ness. "We hope that it will enhance our visitors enjoyment of the site and give a more personal and interesting insight into its unique role in British military history."

A ferry from Orford Quay took me across the short stretch of water to the Ness. A six-mile long spit of shingle deposits, the island has all but blocked off Orford from the sea since Tudor times and is now home to nationally rare wildlife as well as a place of Special Scientific Interest

The National Trust has devised a number of trails to follow on the site and a warden is on hand to explain these and attendant safety procedures (unexploded ordnance still lies beneath the shingle so it's wise to stick to the designated pathways). Taking the military trail to the information hut I could see piles of scrap metal weathered by nature lying strewn amidst the abandoned airfields and derelict buildings.

Shows a photo of the interior of an abandoned laboratory on Orford Ness.

Lab 3 by Louise K Wilson.

Entering the hut I could hear singing. In a room a video was playing of the Exmoor Choir singing a madrigal (written by John Benet in 1599) Weep o Mine Eyes. Recorded by Wilson in the centrifuge pit of Experimental Lab 6, the rising and falling voices punctuate the unnerving silence of the surroundings. It's an affecting piece informed by the island’s atmosphere of mystery and secrecy.

Shows a photo of a man using a film camera to record a group of women singing.

Exmoor Singers by Louise K Wilson.

Britain's first atomic bomb, Blue Danube, was tested at Orford Ness; radar was researched and developed there and it was also the site of many other potentially dangerous experiments. All this work was carried out under conditions of the utmost secrecy until the Ministry of Defence left the site in the mid 1980s and under the care of the National Trust it has been allowed to remain much as it was then.

Shows a photo of some pieces of rusting, scrap metal on a concrete wall on Orford Ness.

Detritus by Louise K Wilson.

If you can't make the journey out to Orford, other parts of Wilson's commission can be seen at Wolsey Art Gallery at St Mary-at-the-Quay, Ipswich until September 17 2005. Inspired by her residency at Orford Ness, Airborne Trial merges the harmonies of a set of handbells to bring back the sound of bells to the church.

One Thousand Hour Trial is another film of Weep o Mine Eyes this time performed by a solo female singer from the Exmoor Choir.

Standing within the decaying interior of experimental Lab 6, a freezing wind howling through the chamber, I was reminded that the work undertaken at Orford Ness continues to resonate today.

24 HM readers should note: the only access to Orford Ness is by ferry from Orford Quay with boats crossing regularly between 10.00am and 2.00pm and the last ferry leaving the Ness at 5.00pm.

More on the venues and organisations we've mentioned:
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