Project Cleansweep – Britain’s haunting military landscape

We are living, write the archaeologists Bjornar Olsen and Thora Thetursdottir, through a period of “unruly heritage”. Matter resists our attempts to dispose of it. Reading Project Cleansweep, you are compelled to consider the legacies of such unruly matter, such residual contamination. You are compelled, too, to consider the relationship of beauty and brutality in the landscapes that contain these material legacies. Is it possible, even responsible, to take pleasure in such a place?

This is the question Robert Macfarlane asks in the introduction to Dara McGrath’s Project Cleansweep, and one which echoes throughout the photographs in the book. Named after a 2011 report issued by the Ministry of Defence assessing the risk of residual contamination at UK sites used in the manufacture, storage, and disposal of chemical and biological weapons, Project Cleansweep is a haunting visual history of our relationship with our natural environment.

There’s an undeniable beauty in the photographs collected in Project Cleansweep, from children playing on the beach to a vibrant blue lake in the Welsh countryside. Look closer though, and the images reveal a deeply complicated relationship with our surroundings. There’s something intuitively eerie about pictures of abandoned buildings and broken machinery, but in the context of Project Cleansweep, some of the photographs turn almost sinister. Many of the annotations describe the government destroying or disguising evidence of testing, and often link to ongoing health concerns in the local (human or animal) population. The blue lake is in fact a chemical dump, and the beach was once a testing ground for various dangerous chemicals.

With a foreword by Robert MacFarlane and an afterword by Ulf Schmidt, Project Cleansweep is a deeply moving and subtle work. The most telling image in the entire book is perhaps the last one, a scan of a letter from the MoD denying McGrath’s freedom of information request about the project. It’s a stark reminder that over 4,000 square kilometers of the UK’s landmass was appropriated for military use in the 20th century, with little or no public accountability even to this day.

Project Cleansweep by Dara McGrath is out 20th February from Kehrer Verlag
(9783868289671, h/b, £40.00)

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