Blind Landings (H-bomb Test Site, Orford Ness) 2013 is a series of six works by Jane and Louise Wilson, each of which is a black and white photograph with collaged paper elements, titled consecutively #1 to #6 (Tate T14250–T14255). The collage elements are themselves fragments of c-print black and white photographs. The images were taken in the now-derelict H-bomb test laboratories on Orford Ness in Suffolk, a large shingle spit off the East Coast of England, linked to the mainland at Slaughden just south of Aldeburgh. Now an important site for nature conservation and owned by the National Trust, Orford Ness was formerly administered by the Ministry of Defence, which conducted secret military tests there during both world wars and the Cold War. The Atomic Weapons Research Establishment had a base on the site, and the crumbling remains of some of its buildings provide the subject for this series. The title Blind Landings is taken from the name of the experimental unit that worked in the area during the Cold War. The photographs exist in an edition of four, of which Tate’s copies are number one. They can be displayed as a complete series or in groups of two or more.
The photographs in the series depict either interior or exterior views of the deserted, dilapidated buildings once used to test the performance of components or systems used in atomic weapons. The buildings were designed to absorb accidental explosions; in the case of a significant accident, the roofs would collapse onto the building, sealing it with a lid of concrete. Now the buildings are indeed on the verge of collapse as a result of abandonment and neglect.
The long narrow strips of photographic collage in each image represent black and white wooden yardsticks, an increasingly common motif in the Wilsons’ work. They are pasted over the images of the Orford Ness laboratories at various angles, intrusively criss-crossing the peeling and rusting ruins. They make a reference to the measuring, monitoring, recording and analysing associated with the location’s history of scientific exploration and experiment. When used in an abandoned site linked with past danger, as here, the yardstick also takes on an association with forensics, and its connotations of violence and transgression. Its use also points to the condition of obsolescence because of its superseded imperial standard, the yard.
The Blind Landings photographs were made following a commission in 2012 from Commissions East, for which Jane and Louise Wilson were invited to make a series of site specific installations on Orford Ness. The Wilsons installed a number of sculptures and sound works at the site, as well as in the disused laboratories themselves, using the same yardstick motif as seen in the photographs. Much of Jane and Louise Wilsons’ work has involved filming and photographing architectural spaces ‘where there is a pathology attached’ (Virginia Button, The Turner Prize: Twenty Years, London 2003, p.158). They are sensitive to the powerful emotional effects generated by certain kinds of architecture and they have often made work about locations made notorious by recent history and the politics of power. For example, their video installation Stasi City 1997 was filmed in the abandoned headquarters of the German Democratic Republic Intelligence Service and in a former Stasi prison, while Gamma 1999 (Tate T07698) was filmed at the decommissioned American missile base at Greenham Common in Berkshire. A previous series of photographs took as its subject the disused World War II bunkers on the Normandy coastline of northern France (see Azeville 2006, Urville 2006 and Biville 2006, Tate P80083, P80084 and P80085 respectively). Similarly, the testing laboratories at Orford Ness are remnants of another time, now severed from their former use.
Jane and Louise Wilson, exhibition catalogue, Serpentine Gallery, London 2000.
Jane and Louise Wilson, exhibition catalogue, De Appel Amsterdam 2004.
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