Essays:

> Dara McGrath and Ulf Schmidt: This Poisoned Isle

Josie Purcell / Dara McGrath and Ulf Schmidt: This Poisoned Isle

November 2018

Beyond the Post-Military Landscape of the UK

Not much, photographically speaking, happens in St Agnes, a small Cornish coastal town that retains a distinct village feel. If you live here, like me, and have a thirst for imagery that goes beyond a beautiful sunset or a sweeping beach scene, you do tend to have to travel further afield to quench your desire.

And that’s why, on a grey day with a constant Cornish mizzle, a beacon of considered and thought-provoking photographic light lit up a room in the Miners and Mechanic’s Institute. Donning a rain coat, I set off to see the project, This Poisoned Isle, a collaboration between photographer Dara McGrath and historian Ulf Schmidt.

McGrath and Schmidt’s touring exhibition, which launched in St Agnes on September 21, aims to engage local communities with the history of, and their connection to, chemical and biological warfare trials that have taken place in the UK since World War I. The images displayed come from McGrath’s series, Project Cleansweep, on which the pair worked on its exhibition catalogue. 

With the majority of images devoid of a physical human presence, they have a disquieting ability to compel you to look deeper. They unsettle and prod at your curiosity. With neutral lighting, McGrath’s photographs create a tension between an evidential aesthetic and a sense of intrigue.

The photograph ‘Nancekuke, Cornwall’, which is only 16 miles from St Agnes, pictures a dividing metal fence cutting across rough and ready scrubland. It was, in the 1950s, the UK’s main site for making nerve agents. 

‘Little Heath, Suffolk’ shows us an abandoned chair on a former storage site for mustard gas. You can feel the cold of the melting snow surrounding the empty seat but you can’t be sure the chill is from your perception of the temperature or the story of the place.

There is comedy in the image ‘Woodside, Flintshire’. At first glance you see a patch of grass edged by a wood with what looks like oil drums snaking along the fence. On closer inspection it appears as if the drums are marked with chemical warning signs. Looking closer you can see birds dotted nearby and even right next to the containers. Once a place to store chemical weapons in bulk, the field is now used to raise grouse. The drums contain their feed and they merrily help themselves.

Both photographer and historian are passionate about the research behind this work. McGrath spent time in each location, talking to locals to find their truths, investigating the areas online before, and often revisiting to give his work gravitas. Schmidt is the author of Secret Science: A Century of Poison Warfare and Human Experiments and Professor of Modern History and Director of the Centre for the History of Medicine, Ethics and Medical Humanities at the University of Kent. Their aim is to use this collaboration, without judgement, to engage with the communities that have been involved in, or affected by, the UK’s chemical weapons programme. 

I spoke to McGrath after the talk. He said that he often felt a sense of guilt when taking these images. “When I take a photograph of a person, in some ways I am taking their soul for that moment, I have it forever. I feel the same about these landscapes. I go to these places and I somehow feel guilty; I’m intruding in these landscapes. It’s very important to me to go back to a community and say I appreciate you letting me do this and to give something back. In this project, these individual locations are a part of a much wider history.” 

McGrath’s images have been exhibited at a number of galleries between 2015 and 2017. With this touring show, the photographs are displayed on information style boards, with supporting text.  It could be said that the necessity to easily transport the work and information slightly dilutes the power of the photograph compared to a ‘white cube’ setting. For me, the slickness of display is unimportant. The fact that such fascinating images and stories have escaped the gallery walls and ventured to a place that is not known on the photography circuit gives this exhibition extra credence. 

The travelling exhibition will now visit another nine places across Wales, Scotland and England. And even if you think where you live hasn’t been involved in the UK’s chemical weapons past, it may be worth double checking.

 – text by Josie Purcell 

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Selected images at right:

Nancekuke, Cornwall:

In the 1950s, Nancekuke was the United Kingdom’s main site for the production of nerve agents. When it closed, remnants of many of the contaminated buildings and equipment were dumped in old quarries and mine shafts on and around the site, where they remain to this day. Today the site is an active military radar station. Some years ago, the Nancekuke Remediation Project was undertaken to assess the site to determine what was buried there.

 

Woodside, Flintshire:

Located on a back road near the Rhydymwyn Valley Chemical Works. It was used as a spill over storage site to store bulk chemical weapons. The storage at Woodside was in 31 partially buried 55-ton tanks and 1-250 ton tanks. The site also became experimental as it was built as a model for other bases to be built around the country. These Forward Filling Bases would receive and store chemicals and were ready to arm it in quick response to any chemical attack on the UK. Today the field is used for the rearing of grouse.

 

Little Heath, Suffolk:

Maintenance Unit No. 94 was a Forward Filling Depot comprising three 500-tonne underground mustard gas storage pots. Decanting and burning of munitions also took place here immediately after the Second World War. Little Heath was part of a larger military base connected to the nuclear bomb store at nearby RAF Barnham. In 2009, the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, Porton, released a series of slides by Gareth Johnson and Mark Rogers in which they reported the discovery of several munitions including large jars of mustard gas. Today the site and its buildings are used as a wood-processing facility.

Installation shots of ‘This Poisoned Isle’ at the St Agnes Miners and Mechanics Institute, September 2018.

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Future exhibitions include: 

March 2019 Harpur Hill, Derbyshire

April 2019 Whiteford Point, Gower Peninsula

May 2019 Runcorn, Merseyside

June 2019 Mold, Flintshire, Wales

July 2019 Gairloch, Wester Ross, Scotland

September 2019 Bedford, Bedfordshire

October 2019 Swinderby, Lincoln

November 2019 York, North Yorkshire

December 2019 Porton, Wiltshire

March 2020 University of Kent at Canterbury

 

Full details can be found at: poisoned-isle.com

Or visit daramcgrath.com/project-cleansweep to view more Project Cleansweep images.