29 Nov 2020

A cabinet of curiosities

Second installment of notes and reflections from the 2019 exhibition Sensitive Chaos, derived from an extended artist residency at Orford Ness, an ex-military zone on the Suffolk Coast (UK).

What follows is a selection of exhibition notes assembled to accompany a 'cabinet of curiosities' in one of the four exhibition rooms. The full exhibition has been described in a previous blog post.


Synchronicity: no causal connection, yet possibly meaningfully related?
Since my first visit here, I have been struck by the accumulation of references to China.

I learnt of one association before even reaching ‘the island’, when a colleague referred to the ‘pagodas’, a strangely appropriate and evocative descriptor for the ruins of two of the huge concrete AWRE laboratory buildings, clearly visible from afar. These structures, with their prominent pillars, have become emblematic of Orford Ness, possessing almost mythological power. One of the silhouettes is the centrepiece for the new National Trust pin-badge for the site.
Soon after landing on the Ness I was taken to the ‘Chinese Wall’ - a sea defence bank originally constructed by Chinese labourers during World War One. Little information remains about the circumstances of this labour camp but anecdotal records suggest that some of the labourers used to cycle to the local villages in search of chickens (for the pot?) and live crickets (allegedly for the nostalgic soundscape, though more likely for gambling). The Chinese labour camp is now the subject of new investigations, with interest from Chinese cultural organisations. According to historian, Paul Bailey, “the recruitment of Chinese labour in World War One represented simply a minor and shameful episode in the longer history of Western exploitation of China in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries”.
Another - perhaps unsurprising - encounter with China was via a fragment of a ‘Willow Pattern’ plate, found on-site by a visitor, and placed in the ad-hoc collection in one of the buildings (the ‘Power House’). The classic, and very common, blue and white ‘delftware’ decorative pattern features an invented Chinese folktale and a pagoda-temple. The associated story is English in origin, and has no firm links to China. The pattern’s popularity was so enduring that by the Victorian period it had even become the subject of its own song:

‘Two pigeons flying high
Chinese vessel sailing by
Weeping willow hanging o’er
Bridge of three men maybe four
Chinese temples stand
Seem to take up all the land
Apple trees with apples on
A pretty fence to end my song’

One of the most notable ‘alien’ species that has recently made its home on the Ness is the Chinese Water Deer (Hydropotes inermis). Some of these animals first escaped from captivity in England in 1929, and have dispersed widely, with a small population enjoying the sanctuary of Orford Ness. And still in the animal world, when spending time with bird and moth experts on Orford Ness, there appeared the ‘Chinese Character’ moth (Cilix glaucata). This moth has silvery markings on some of the veins, which suggest brush strokes in Chinese script, hence its common name. When at rest, the moth is camouflaged like a bird dropping, thus avoiding the attention of predators. In Gerald Durrell’s ‘My family and Other Animals’ there is an appearance:
"Aha, now, this is rather interesting. You see this, um… little maggot-like thing? Now this is the larva of the China-mark moth. I think, as a matter of fact, you have got one in your collection. What? Well, they’re called China-mark moths because of the markings on the wing, which are said to resemble very closely marks that potters put on the base of, er… you know, very good china. Spode and so forth.”   

In a different way, another ‘refugee’ animal species (native to China and East Asia) is the pheasant, widely found (and shot!) on the ‘mainland, but - these days - relatively safe, and breeding, on the Ness. In 2018, a partly-white pheasant was mistakenly thought by one visitor to be a ptarmigan. 

In 1954, the UK began development of a thermonuclear bomb. ‘Green Bamboo’ was the code-name of one of the designs developed on Orford Ness. A less violent plant association is with rhubarb (Rheum), cultivated since 2700 BC in China, for its medicinal (purgative) qualities. On Orford Ness, there is a suggestion that a patch of rhubarb still survives on the south of the shingle spit, near the site of an old abandoned summerhouse, built by the Rope family from Orford, but later requisitioned by the Royal Flying Corps. Despite some searching, I’ve not yet found the rhubarb.
A final Chinese connection: The book, ’Tao - The Watercourse Way’ about Chinese Taoism, was given to me by David Mason (Head ranger with the National Trust on Orford Ness), based on resonances with the Sensitive Chaos project. The first chapter is devoted to Chinese ideograms. Chinese calligraphy goes with the ‘tao’ (the ‘way’, the ‘path, the ’flow’).



Serendipity and Flow. The weather-beaten image of Shiva was found on the shingle by a visitor, and left in the Power House building near the Black Beacon. In that building, there is an assemblage of such ‘finds’ - an informal one to accompany a collection of objects put together in a more formal and structured way. I’m interested in the ways in which the ‘East’ intrudes into the insular environment of Orford Ness. In this respect, China is more prominent than India, but I have taken the opportunity to here add the tiny statuettes of the gods Shiva and Kali that I picked up in a market in Delhi in 2017. The seller was a dedicated devotee of Kali, and we conversed for a while about his devotional practice. More recently I have listened to lectures by Alan Watts (whose book also appears in my cabinet) and his descriptions of these two Hindu gods. There is deep relevance to themes thrown up during Sensitive Chaos - with concepts of cyclical time; and the co-existence of creation and destruction. Shiva destroys worlds - and illusions - and returns everything to the formless chaos from which it emerged. He has a third eye, from which he can produce a laser beam made of pure fiery enlightenment. Kali (one of Shiva’s wives) was born of anger, then kills and eats everything in her path in an unstoppable torrent of destruction. Kali has a tongue drooling with blood, but in some ways Kali transcends good and evil. She has wild tribal origins, and is brought into play when decisive action is required, when dark deeds must be matched with dark deeds.

“One of the meanings of Kali’s name is “force of time”. In this aspect she is considered to stand outside of the constraints of space-time and have no permanent qualities; she existed before the universe was created and will continue to exist after the universe ends. Limitations of the physical world such as colour, light, good and bad do not apply to Kali. She is a symbol of Mother Nature herself – primordial, creative, nurturing and devouring in turn, but ultimately loving and benevolent. In this aspect of goodness she is referred to as Kali Ma, Mother Kali, or Divine Mother, and many millions of Hindus revere and worship her in this form. In Tantric meditation, Kali’s dual nature leads practitioners to simultaneously face the beauty of life and the reality of death, with the understanding that one cannot exist without the other. It is worth noting that Shiva, in his role of destroyer of worlds, also stands outside the boundaries of the physical universe and is well complimented by his association with Kali.”   Linda Heaphy, Kashgar


I had been planning to write about two separate subjects:
(a) fluid coastal processes and (b) rewilding & elephants
until I realised they were, and are, entangled and relevant to Orford Ness.
With the recent scientific chatter about the 'bringing back’ of the woolly mammoth (via recovered DNA), the connection to rewilding - of landscapes, places, ecologies - is inescapable. This 'bringing back' is a theme or a meme in (some) rewilding circles (e.g. the case of the auroch). But also, as some have pointed out, even if successful, it wouldn't anyway be a mammoth, but some form of part-elephant/part-mammoth hybrid. And elephants enter the rewilding debates in other ways. The writer George Monbiot and others have pondered the co-evolution of native tree species and elephants. This animal has cropped up in my field investigations, related to Sensitive Chaos, on a few occasions. During some connected research in Portugal in 2015, in the field (of rewilding) as it were, there appeared a particular legendary elephant who survives now through the storytelling of José Saramago, and his book ‘The Elephant’s Journey’ (2008), which features the isolated mountain town of Cidadellhe. This place was one of the stops of an epic elephantine journey in 1551, when João III of Portugal dispatched an elephant from his Lisbon menagerie to Archduke Maximilian of Austria - an elephant called Solomon. Today, in the surrounds of Cidadelhe, there are determined efforts to re-populate the countryside with large herbivores, aiming to establish a new richly diverse (and rewilded) ecology.
Later, in 2017, amid preparations for the ‘Heritage Futures’ exhibition in Manchester Museum (also related to Sensitive Chaos), I encountered an elephant skeleton, and the true story of another ‘elephant journey’ - undertaken by Maharajah, the elephant who walked all the way to Manchester from Edinburgh. Maharajah died in 1882 and his skeleton is on show at the museum today.
“The last refuge of European elephant could have been in Iberia. It wouldn’t be the only one to find its final stronghold here. Neanderthal, leopard, dhole, enzebro, brown bear and Iberian lynx… Iberia would see the extinction or survival in extremis of several European mammals.” Diego Rodríguez, 2019

Deep Time and a Deep History Coast. The Orford Ness shingle mass will endlessly continue on its journey of longshore drift. The extensive ‘reclaimed’ marshlands will be transformed by rising sea-level. Meanwhile, the plant communities that cling to the inhospitable surface of the slowly shifting ridges and waves of shingle are likely to outlive any human influence. Over geological time, the pulsating dance of transgressing seas and ice-age melting episodes will once more inundate this land - destined to share the fate of the drowned world of Doggerland, with its elephant, mammoth and hippo bones, now lying off-shore under the North Sea. Living with transformation on this morphing coast necessitates living with very fluid hopes and visions for the longer future. Zooming-out and zooming-in reveals the fractal, recursive qualities of the wave-forms of Orford Ness; reveals the Sensitive Chaos. Doggerland is not elsewhere; it is here; right here.


NOTE 4: On Lizards etc.

The beach/shingle side of the Ness has a harsh, sparse character, pared down, weather-blasted, bomb-blasted. The resident humans have departed; the non-human creatures and plants are clinging on; living in the precariousNess of desert survival. For us visitors, it can have a magnetic attraction, unfamiliar, unsafe...yet healing also?
The Russian literary critic Viktor Shklovsky argued that 'defamiliarization' is essentially the point of all art. "Defamiliarization makes stone stony again; it saves our lives from automatization.” This is what he called 'ostranenie'.
Another (newer) term - Anthropocene, relates to the power of humans to change the planet. Humans as an influential geological force, changing the trajectory of the biosphere and even the lithosphere. This concept is maybe hard to relate to on this particular drifting shingle coast? Here we come face-to-face with the insignificance and ephemerality of our puny human efforts. But there remains a hybrid - almost mythic - atmosphere - the raw, bareness of the terrain, punctuated by some striking and alluringly symbolic constructed forms - massive concrete pagodas, a lighthouse, a ‘black beacon’ - the ensemble like a warped, strange 'willow pattern' scene, but (unlike the familiar traditional willow pattern scene) in this place the individual human 'actors' - or visible figures in the landscape - are puny, non-players.
There is no comfort to be found here, no sense that this shingle-land is a friend, that one could conceivable survive out here, if abandoned. (maybe in the right season, the bramble season?; maybe there's bush-tucker?; maybe the nocturnal fauna could provide rich hunting?; maybe it's a place for certain mushrooms? (but not mushroom clouds)...and I'm told there's Summer Sea Kale to be found)
But it is mythic too in a fantastical way.
Here there be dragons...or we can at least imagine, or fantasise, the past and future existence of species giant lizards - Komodo Dragon-like?
For now, we have to settle for the small common lizard, which is a resident here.
On the exhibition notice board is very early x-ray image of a lizard (Green Lizard, 1896, Josef Maria Eder and Eduard Valenta). Discovered by Roentgen, x-rays are intimately linked to the discovery of radioactivity, which in turn is a core part of the history of Orford Ness (uranium, radium, atomic bombs, stories of ‘death-rays’ etc). Early X-rays revealed a hidden world under the skin, and the lizard is a portal of sorts into the hidden world - the undercurrents - beneath the surface of the Ness. The snake - reality and idea - similarly offers such insight.



Here is a glass cabinet or case - a wunderkammer of sorts.
A cabinet of wonder.

Glass - and some associated themes of ‘reflection’, ‘illumination’, ’mirror’ and ‘light&dark’ - are all  important in the Sensitive Chaos project. Each image in the photo-series in the next room is of the same old and distressed window - composed of laminated bomb-proof glass. But there are other facets.
In the cabinet is a vase made of ‘uranium glass’, prompting thoughts of a resonance with the atom-bomb testing history on Orford Ness, whilst revealing ambiguities and paradoxes that still exist in relation to the characteristics of this element - Uranium (atomic no. 92); the sublime co-existence of fascination and fear; utility and futility. Uranium (or ‘vaseline’) glass is still manufactured today in small quantities, but in its heyday (1880s to 1920s) it was much more common, and the characteristic yellow-green glow under UV light was much admired as a spectacle. The colour of the yellow-green glass is achieved by adding as little as 0.1% Uranium dioxide. Other related glassware includes green ‘Depression glass’, ‘Burmese glass’ and ‘Custard glass’. All of these glow under UV light, due to the addition of Uranium dioxide.
A serendipitous connection also exists with the previous Limbo Landscape Lab (Evening In Arkadia)  - a creative project which took place in the clay-mining landscape of Cornwall in 2018. Close to where I exhibited an art installation, there is an abandoned uranium mine which, when active, exported much of its purest product to the glass makers of Eastern Europe, to be used in the manufacture of vaseline glassware, such as this vase in the cabinet. I exhibited the same vase in a different site-specific collection - also in a glass cabinet - in Cornwall last year.
And in relation to the theme of ‘flow’ which is central to Sensitive Chaos, there is a focus on glass because of its interesting physical properties. Although claims that glass panes in old windows have deformed due to glass flow have never been substantiated, it can be argued that glass is neither a liquid nor a solid, as it possesses a molecular structure with properties of both (as do liquid-crystals, gels and colloids). Different perspectives can view glass as a highly viscous liquid, an amorphous solid, or another state of matter that is neither liquid nor solid. It is in-between; in limbo.
Much of Orford Ness is covered in a ‘shingle’ of flint, which is a microcrystalline form of silica. In flint, the quartz crystals are such that it fractures like glass and can be chipped into arrow heads, spear points, and other tools. Glassy materials and weaponry have a long association. Some of the earliest hunting weapons were also made using obsidian (a volcanic glass) or rhyolite (a glassy extrusive igneous rock). Then there is the cliché (or trope) of the broken glass bottle in the bar-room brawls of cinema - and indeed real life. A modern glass weapon-type.
It is therefore a highly ambiguous material, on the one hand a form of protection (from the weather, from light, from heat-leakage etc), but it is also a killer material in many ways…and not just a killer of humans. When visiting the ‘Black Beacon’ building on Orford Ness, I observed the futile attempts of insects attempting to escape via a sealed window pane…and the littering of dead insects on the ground below. Many of us have experienced a situation where a bird has flown into a large glass window-pane, and being stunned or killed. Also - disturbingly - there is the common anecdotal evidence of collapse in insect populations as proffered by those recalling the huge numbers of dead insects on car wind-screens of fifty years ago.
The ‘Silent Spring’…and the ‘clean windscreen’?


The snakeskin in the case was given to me when I visited the Côa Valley in Portugal, which is linked to this creative project.
The Côa Valley is the location of a large and ambitious ‘rewilding’ project.
The snakeskin is exhibited here to represent the non-human dwellers in these landscapes. The future of the Ness is destined to feature
the re-establishment of a diverse rich abundant ecology, including reptiles and amphibians.
Can you imagine this landscape as a haven for such creatures?
Will climate-change make this harder or easier? (for us?; for them?)

. A limbo-land
. A hybrid space and place
There is uncertainty, nebulousness, transition, transgressive-ness
Limbo and liminal. What’s the difference?
In-between past and future. 
The future will not be like the past
. The future is hybrid; a collision of sub-atomic particles and Heisenberg uncertainties.
The future is the shape of an amoeba ....or a dogfish?
Or is this the present? Presence?