The Secret Landscape Anya Gallaccio and Orford Ness
By Ben Tufnell
Orford Ness is a weird stony desert lying along the Suffolk coast. The largest vegetated shingle spit in Europe, it stretches for about twelve miles, never more than about four metres above sea level, never more than about a mile wide. At its northern end it is connected to the mainland by a tenuous strip of land at Slaughden. The remainder of the spit is permanently separated from the mainland by a tidal river and a series of salt marshes.
Orford Ness is a shifting landscape made up of sea-shattered and bomb-blasted stone and sand. As a land form it is in slow but inexorable movement, changing shape and size over hundreds of years, yet progressing slowly towards inevitable dissolution Was an artist ever better suited to working in a particular place than Anya Gallaccio and Orford Ness?
For Gallaccio is an artist much occupied with transience and transformation. She has a particular interest in flux. Her work is directed by her materials and her understanding of their various properties and physical potentialities, the possibility for change or stasis. Such concerns were announced in her first public work, Waterloo (1988) made for the exhibition ‘Freeze’ in London. For that piece she melted one ton of lead and poured and splashed the liquid metal across the floor of the exhibition space, allowing the solid state to describe a Minimalist rectangle. Since then many of her works have explored the innate instability and mutability of matter – the bright plumage of market flowers withering and then rotting; candle wax melting, dripping and dropping and finding new forms when cooled; ice, the solid form of water, melting in unpredictable ways and pooling across a gallery floor; seeds taken from rotten apples and planted to create an orchard of new trees; salt dissolving in sea water…..
In the shifting entropic border zone of Orford Ness, then, Gallaccio has a kind of ideal site. It is essentially unstable, slowly becoming something else. It is a place shaped and formed by the same pressures and forces that define much of her work.
Yet Gallaccio is also an artist who is attentive to history and context. In 1998 she created Two Sisters, a 60 ton white column of chalk and plaster, placed in the Hull docks and allowed to slowly discolour and erode. Made from locally sourced materials, the piece engaged with the flow of the Humber but also the man-made space of the docks, carved out of the edge of the estuary, and the trade routes connecting across the sea to Holland. Since then projects as varied as Motherlode (2005-7) in the wine lands of California, and If I were a painter (2008) at Charles Fort, Kinsale, Ireland, have combined ‘nature’ with the socio-cultural, phenomenological and the specifics of place. So Gallaccio’s response to this site takes account of both its natural significance – as a very rare site of coastal vegetated shingle, and an internationally important nature reserve - and its human impact. Her work therefore addresses the natural structure– its essential stoniness – and the military history of the site. Here photography as a tool for analyzing landscape was pioneered in the first War, and here bomb testing shattered and ‘shocked’ the already fragmented stones of the shingle. Responding to these double concerns Gallaccio uses large-scale scanning electron microscope images to present a micro-level survey of the land. However, she embraces ambiguity. Her work forms a kind of mapping of the internal landscape of the shingle. Yet while these might be extreme close ups of geological structures they might equally be aerial views of an alien land taken from a vantage point high above the earth. II.
Physically separated from the mainland, Orford Ness has also been isolated conceptually for much of the last century. Until quite recently access has been restricted. In 1913 the land was acquired by the military and developed as a testing site, first for the new techniques of aerial warfare – reconnaissance, observation, radar, aerial photography and then later bombing – and later, in the Cold War, for testing by the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment. Now cared for by the National Trust access is still restricted. One can visit but on the Ness one there are strict limits as to where one can go. For not only is the site environmentally fragile but there are also hidden dangers, such as unexploded ordnances, concealed beneath the brittle shingle skin of the land.
One gets to it by ferry – an appropriately symbolic journey - as if crossing into another world. The jetty stands by the pretty village of Orford and the opposite shore is little more than a stone’s throw away. Yet while physically proximate the Ness feels like a world away from the Suffolk pastoral. From the landing one first follows a track past derelict Nissan huts and through gentle reclaimed marsh and then gains the shingle. There everything changes. Out there it is a ruin, littered with tangled metal, broken buildings and enigmatic structures. Despite, or perhaps because of, its weird aura, it seems familiar, echoing such post-apocalyptic cinematic visions as Andrei Tarkovsky’s Stalker (1979).
The Ness has a haunted feel. Its emptiness hangs over it. It epitomizes bleakness. One is dimly aware that over the last millennia many ships have gone down on the shoals that lie just out to sea. One senses the loaded history of the site. More recently, in addition to the ghosts of scientists and servicemen who worked there, and the locals who for thousands of years gathered gulls eggs and fished from the wild sea shore, the Ness has been haunted by artists and poets. Here we might find the melancholy shade of WG Sebald who, in his seminal work, The Rings of Saturn (1995), recounts a visit to Orford. In that uncanny narrative Sebald links together a series of sites along the East Anglian coast which are redolent of, and symbolic of, states of transience. At Orford he meditates on ruination and solitude and experiences an epiphanic vision in which different times seem to be simultaneously present; the sails of long-vanished windmills turning inland in strange concert. Sebald seems also to channel the Zone:
‘But 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….’ 
Inspired by the ‘hacked up landscape’ and the fact that Orford was a scientific research station, Gallaccio decided to marry together a series of seemingly divergent ideas in her new work for SNAP. The scientific work of the Ness inspired the notion of a ‘land survey.’ The blasted terrain suggested the idea of looking in extreme detail at the trauma caused to the individual elements that make up the land. And Gallaccio was interested too in the inherent subjectivity of photography, the way that seemingly objective images derived from a scientific process are open to interpretation and meaning is not fixed.
So Gallaccio proposed a series of large-scale photographs – ‘landscapes’ derived from the stones of the Ness – that would be put back into the landscape and configured off the horizontal so that they might ‘speak to the sky’, as the land itself does. A second group of photographs would also be shown at Snape Maltings during the festival, thereby triangulating the different elements of the project and suggesting a form of remote mapping that echoes notions of aerial surveillance.
Gallaccio has shown images made with a scanning electron microscope before. In 2005 she made Silver Seed, a series of microscopic images of conifer seeds from Mount Stuart in Bute. Another series, Plain as your eyes can see (2011), contains images of sand and rock from the deserts of California, Arizona, Utah and Nevada. Arthur’s Seat (2012) is an image of a speck of dirt from the famous natural landmark in Edinburgh. Speaking of these works, Gallaccio has said, ‘I wanted to make landscapes with an epic sense of scale, or a strangeness, like planets, and remote unexplored worlds from these tiny particles, normally overlooked, literally under our feet.’
Gallaccio’s Orford images evoke this sense of scale but this is the first time she has placed the images in direct relation to the site from which they are derived. This very direct relationship creates a dizzying dialogue between macro and micro, surface and interior, reality and representation. In this it perhaps recalls the seminal example of Robert Smithson, who for a number of works inserted mirrors into the landscape and on at least occasion, in the piece Photo-Markers (6 Stops on a Section), Laurel Hill, New Jersey, 1968 placed photographs of a landscape back into the landscape depicted, creating a weird doubling.
Gallaccio also cites, with approval, Smithson’s assertion that: ‘A crack in the wall, if viewed in terms of scale, not size, could be called the Grand Canyon. A room could be made to take on the immensity of the solar system.’ 
It is clearly a question of perception. In a similar way Gallaccio’s work for Orford Ness renders scale utterly ambiguous. Considering image and landscape we are lost, adrift somewhere between the infinitesimal and the overwhelmingly vast.
Smithson is perhaps another of the ghosts that populate Ordford Ness, though he never visited. If he had done, I feel sure he would have been compelled.
It was a grey spring day when I travelled to the Ness. Despite the clouds the light was bright and seemed to come from many directions. From a vantage point on the roof of one of the derelict military buildings the landscape looked incredibly ancient, despite the intrusion of rusted metal, vehicle tracks and unexplainable concrete structures. At the edge of the shore a metal watchtower was in the process of collapsing into the sea. A hare loped across the shingle. Out there I was reminded of another desert, the barren landscapes of Utah where Smithson’s monumental masterwork Spiral Jetty (1970) is located, and the vast and bleak weapons testing range at Wendover just on the rim of the Bonneville Salt Flats. There, they say, one can see the curvature of the earth. It felt like that too, at the edge of England. There one is conscious of standing on a planet, a pebble or even a grain of sand spinning in the vastness of the cosmos. Again, one’s sense of scale becomes unhinged.
Smithson said ‘The desert is less “nature” than a concept, a place that swallows up boundaries.’  He was referring to the great American west (where Gallaccio now resides) but it is a statement that rings equally true of the Ness, and of Gallaccio’s work for it. To use her own words again, these are truly ‘landscapes with an epic sense of scale, or a strangeness, like planets, and remote unexplored worlds…’
WG Sebald, The Rings of Saturn, Harvill Press, London, 1999, p.237
2* Robert Smithson, ‘The Spiral Jetty’ (1972) in Jack Flam ed. Robert Smithson: The Collection Writings, University of California Press, Berkeley, 1996, p.147
3* Robert Smithson, ‘A Sedimentation of the Mind: Earth Projects’ (1968) in Jack Flam op cit., p.109