Insectopedia

Chernobyl

 

 

 

  • I watch Cornelia Hesse-Honegger working in her apartment in Zurich and try to imagine what she sees through her microscope. Beneath the lens is a tiny golden-green insect, one of the “leaf bugs” she has been painting for more than 30 years. The binocular microscope magnifies to 80X. The centimeter scale in the left eyepiece allows her to map every detail of the animal’s body with precision.

     

    Cornelia collected this animal close to the Gundremmingen nuclear power plant in southern Germany. Like most of the insects she paints, it is deformed. In this case, its abdomen is irregularly shaped, a little crinkled on its right side. To me, even under the microscope the deformity is all but imperceptible. But just think, she says, how such an anomaly must feel if you are only 5 mm long!

     

    What does Cornelia see when she focuses so intently on this creature? She tells me that when she’s outside, collecting in fields, at roadsides, and on the edges of forests, she “loses herself in the animal.” At these moments, she says, she feels “very connected, extremely connected,” feels a deep bond, as if, perhaps, she herself had once been such a creature—a leaf bug—“and had a body remembering.”

     

    But her painting practice, as she explains it, is almost the opposite of this. When she sits down with her microscope, she no longer experiences the insect as coevolved being, but as form and color, shape and texture, quantity and volume, plane and aspect. Her work becomes as mechanical as possible. (“I want to be like a laser that goes from one square centimeter to the next. I see it, I show it; I see it, I show it,” she tells me.) At times, as in the painting on this page, she introduces a principle of formal randomness, selecting specimens from her collection by chance and abstracting a single structure which she repeatedly positions at designated points on the graph paper, creating an image with no preconceived final arrangement.

     

    The painting shows a series of eyes from fruit flies, Drosophila melanogaster, that had been irradiated by geneticists at the Zoological Institute of the University of Zurich. Radiation has left the eyes irregularly positioned on the flies’ heads and, as a result, despite the orderliness of the arrangement, the horizontal and vertical lines in the paintings are uneven. The flies’ eyes are bizarre. Their size and shape vary dramatically. Several are sprouting wing parts, aberrations that allow the researchers to investigate cell behavior—“like someone who studies a train by systematically letting it derail,” as Cornelia puts it. One fly, represented by empty space, has an eye missing entirely.

     

    Cornelia painted this picture in 1987. But she first drew mutated Drosophila twenty years earlier as a scientific illustrator at the Zurich Zoological Institute. In a standard protocol, those flies had been fed food laced with ethyl methane sulfonate. The  resulting mutations fascinated her so much that she began painting the damaged insects in her own time, experimenting with angle and color, even casting some large heads as plastic sculpture, struggling to make sense of the disturbing world she was being pulled into. At the Institute, her job was to draw the varied appearance of the so-called “quasimodo” mutants. The animals were crippled and pitifully monstrous, “chaotically” deformed. In preparation for the illustrators, the inner organs of each fly’s head were dissolved with a chemical agent that left the disturbed face as a mask. “The mutants were not to leave me,” she wrote. And, indeed, from this point on, her life is shadowed by the victims, actual and potential, of induced mutation….

     

     

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