Beyond the Post-Military Landscape of the United Kingdom
Exhibition runs 11th - 27th May
Opens Friday 11th May 2pm
Welcome by festival director Paul McGuckin and exhibition tour with artist Dara McGrath.
The project takes its name from a UK Ministry of Defence report issued in 2011 that assessed the risk of residual contamination at sites in the United Kingdom used in the manufacture, storage, and disposal of chemical and biological weapons from World War I to the present day. The report found "no indication of significant risk to public health or environment" even though authorities conceded they "do not have scientific evidence that all harmful traces of the agents were removed or disposed of." McGrath visited each of the sites listed in the Project Cleansweep report, and identified others through government documents and interviews with military historians, environmental activists, and locals.
Many of the photographs depict scenic views: beaches, moorlands and idyllic islands. You wouldn't know that each is the former site of a chemical or biological weapons facility. "There’s a dichotomy going on here, between the beautiful landscape and the secret history that’s hidden underneath,” he says. His series documents the often picturesque spots once home to chemical factories, ordnance test quarries, underground munitions bunkers and decontamination centers where authorities produced, tested, and disposed of lethal agents like anthrax and mustard gas.
Great Britain began testing chemical weapons on home soil during World War I, a practice that continued through World War II and beyond. Many facilities and sites sat less than 10 miles from rural towns. The work looks beyond the risk assessment to the ways that landscapes are psychologically charged by their history, examining the sites of the official investigation, including those used for both chemical and biological weapons activities during the Cold War. McGrath’s investigations followed traces that lead, predictably, to military bases and government facilities and, more surprisingly, to grocery stores and nature parks. Over 4,000 sq km of the landmass in the UK was appropriated for military use in the 20th century. The images take the viewer into the country lanes of Dorset and Devon, the Peak District, the woodlands of Yorkshire and out across the open rolling countryside of the Salisbury Plain, all the way from the coastlines of East Anglia, the West Counties and Wales to the remote Scottish Highlands and the Irish Sea.
“A lot of [the sites] have been forgotten about. It’s important to know the history of the landscape and be aware of that.” Whilst these tests are no longer a part of UK military actions, McGrath believes they still resonate with current international affairs.