Project Cleansweep Beyond the Post-Military Landscape of the United Kingdom 11th - 27th May 2018 Fort Dunree
Throughout the 20th century, the Ministry of Defence carried out chemical and biological weapons tests in the UK. Dara McGrath’s Project Cleansweep documents these landscapes as they return to public use.
The project takes its name from a UK Ministry of Defence report issued in 2011, which 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. There is no indication that each site was once home to a chemical or biological weapons facility - a chemical factory, ordnance test quarry, underground munitions bunker or decontamination centre where authorities produced, tested, and disposed of lethal agents like anthrax and mustard gas. "There’s a dichotomy going on here, between the beautiful landscape and the secret history that’s hidden underneath,” he says. Although these tests are no longer a part of UK military actions, McGrath believes they still resonate with current international affairs.
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. The work marks the influence of military activities upon the British landscape, provoking deeper consideration of their lasting social and environmental impacts.
Dara McGrath is a photographic artist based in Cork City, Ireland. His photo works look at transitional spaces, in-between places where architecture, landscape and the built environment intersect, where a dialogue – of absence rather than presence – is created. Recent exhibitions include: Sirius Arts Centre, PhotoIreland, Belfast Exposed, Format Photo Festival, Espace Lhomond Paris Photo, New Irish Works II, PhotoHof Salzburg, Gallery of Photography Dublin, Photo Biennale Thessalonika, Centre Des Beaux Arts Brussels, Voies-Off Arles, Venice Biennale of Architecture, Landeskrone Photo, Kaunas Photo Days, Singapore Photo Festival, Photo Week DC, Copenhagen Photo Festival. McGrath is the winner of the Remote Photo Prize 2017, the RAC Photo Award 2017, the AIB Arts Prize, European Now Award, a Solas Prize and was recently nominated for the Prize Pictet 2016.