A terrible beauty

Almost ten years after Chernobyl, scientists still stress the limited e ffect of nuclear fallout. Cornelia Hesse-Honegger, a Swiss painter of insects, says otherwise. Her precise paintings of mutated bugs, collected across Europe, demonstrate an alarming pattern. By Jeremy Hall
Click to follow
The Independent Culture
Cornelia Hesse-Honegger's most recent paintings are stacked neatly against the wall of her studio in Zurich. Although she has had regular exhibitions of her work throughout Europe, she does not sell any of it. As a matter of fact, she has never tried to. "People don't want pictures of such things," she says modestly.

Her paintings depict the world of the common or garden insect. The abdomen of a bug is enlarged to become a giant bloated belly, measuring, in some cases, a metre. The thorax of a beetle is overwhelming; the giant eyes of a housefly gloat at the viewer. Her insects defy the onlooker. Billowing layers of shiny, multicoloured skins, deep reds and yellows, rich browns and blacks, spotted and bubbled symmetric shapes expose themselves on the sterile, white paper. On closer inspection, however, each painting has a darker side to it. Rather than the malevolent monster organisms of Hollywood B-movies, her subjects are innocent victims. These insects are unnatural, abnormal, deformed, mutated, distorted. At the bottom of each painting lies a clue: "Found near Sellafield 1989"... "Found near Chernobyl 1990"... "Found near Three Mile Island 199l". Hesse-Honegger's work confronts us with a view of our world that we would prefer not to see. We are compelled to witness our own destructiveness, our failings and weaknesses, through the subjects we have poisoned and destroyed.

"I think of my work like a crime novel," she says. "I am trying to discover who the murderer is, and every now and again I discover a clue, but mostly I find bodies." Her most recent works have just returned from an exhibition in Hamburg. The paintings are of insects she collected in the towns of Obermarschacht and Niedermarschacht, near the Krummel nuclear plant in Lower Saxony, Germany. Some insects have uneven and misshapen wings; others have blisters on the thorax and deformed legs. The Krummel plant has been at the centre of a fierce public and scientific debate for the past five years. The number of children with leukaemia in the towns surrounding the plant is much higher than the national average.

On the easel in Hesse-Honegger's studio is a painting in progress. The form taking shape belongs to the Heteroptera, or leaf bugs. She has studied the leaf bug for much of her career and has become highly knowledgeable of the subtleties that distinguish not only one bug from another, but one antenna from another.

The precision and detail of her paintings are breathtaking. To the left of the easel is a jar full of tiny brushes. Each brush has been custom- made: a cluster of hairs on one brush forms a fine point, another has been cut off abruptly to form a blunt end, others have been plucked so that only three or four hairs remain. A large microscope and a Tupperware sandwich box containing the dead bugs lie next to the jar. The bugs are held in place by two pins and are arranged in rows, 20 across and ten deep.

Under her microscope is a member of the Heteroptera. It is an attractive insect, with a thick, square, shielded body that averages six millimetres in length. It has long, striated antennae and an outer armour of golden browns with black dots and the occasional hint of green. A family of Heteroptera will pick a single succulent plant and make it their "home" for many generations. It is Hesse-Honegger's favourite insect for this very reason, as it enables her to return to a plant year after year with the guarantee of finding the same family. This provides a fairly accurate assessment of the amount of radioactivity that has been absorbed. Heteroptera feed directly from the fluids in the plant and are, therefore, one of the first links in the contamination chain to be affected. Radionuclides wash into the soil or settle on the leaf, where they are absorbed by the plant and, in turn, digested by the leaf bug.

Cornelia Hesse-Honegger started her training as a scientific illustrator in 1961 at the Zoological Museum of Zurich University. For much of her career she has been employed by geneticists, painting fruit flies (Drosophila) at the Zoological Institute. Her skills have been used to document accurately, and in minute detail, the visible changes that occur in fruit flies when they have been given chemicals in their food.

The fruit fly has played an important part in the field of genetics. The fly breeds every three weeks, allowing scientists to identify genetic changes over many generations in a single year. Drosophila became famous in the Thirties when the Nobel Prize winner Hermann Muller discovered that radiation caused genetic mutations in the fly. In his acceptance speech, Muller told the audience, "Good mutations are so rare that we can consider them all as bad."

At the time of his findings, the more established professions of medical science and physics assumed that standards for an acceptable radiation dose could be based upon the observable effects on the body. The work of Muller and other biologists challenged the belief that there was a threshold, or level of tolerance, for radiation. They argued for the cumulative and long-term risks of radiation to be considered, and proved that doses below the set tolerance level affected individual cells. This thesis was only seriously discussed by the International Commission of Radiological Protection in the late Fifties, and resulted in a tightening of radiation standards.

Cornelia Hesse-Honegger has attempted to combine in her career her role as a scientific illustrator with her impulse and energy as an artist. "I never wanted to be an artist," she says. "My parents were both artists and knew a lot of famous painters, and I had no longing to be like them. But when I worked at the Institute I quite naturally coloured the backgrounds to some of my work. The scientists didn't like this at all; it wasn't scientific!" In the early Eighties she realised that she was becoming absorbed into the world of scientific experiments and anaesthetised to the deformities she was painting. "My life at the time was so comfortable. I spent my days with my family, baking bread and painting flies. Yet all around me atomic bombs and chemicals were being tested. I felt that I needed to express my political feelings through my art. I became preoccupied with the idea that some things in our natural surroundings have changed in the same way as the lab flies had.

"I had always relied on the knowledge of the biologists to explain how a plant or animal should look; they, I thought, knew about nature. There were individual differences within the species, from one animal to the next, but one could always find out to which species something belonged simply by consulting books. Every creature, large or small, is determined by evolution and genetic information. That is what defines the appearance and beauty of our natural environment. I no longer felt that this was true. I began to question what was normal. Were the leaves and bugs around us normal or a mutation? Perhaps we are all living in a world that has mutated over the centuries. I became highly sensitive to everything."

By the mid-Eighties, Hesse-Honegger was working more and more on her own studies, painting the flies, bugs and plant life near her home. From her observations, she discovered that many of the species were disappearing. What had been common, now no longer existed. It was undetectable to the naked eye, but plain as day under the microscope. The world was changing in minute detail. Pigments were changing, forms were altering. "These changes are being allowed to occur unnoticed," she continued. "No one is documenting them. We cling to images of our world through books, but we do not really look at what is around us. Our idea of what the world is like no longer corresponds to the reality."

Then, in April 1986, Hesse-Honegger heard the news about Chernobyl. She describes the impact of the Chernobyl accident on her life as though it were a "Before Christ and After Christ" experience. The year before the accident, she had been given irradiated fruit flies to paint. She was shocked by what she saw under the microscope. "They were the worst deformities I had ever seen. Some had legs growing out of the antennae, others had growths on their eyes, colours varied and their wings were misshapen and curved. After the accident at Chernobyl, it was clear that the sterile, controlled environment of the scientific laboratory experiment had become irrelevant. The experiments were now occurring in reality." Although the scientists at the Institute told her that the levels of radiation from Chernobyl would be too low to affect the natural surroundings, Hesse-Honegger left for Sweden, the first country to register the fallout. "I took my paints, specimen jars and microscope to the parts that had received the highest fallout, Gavle and Oesterfarnebo," she recalled. "I set up my studio in the hotel room and looked for Heteroptera. I saw deformations on their antennae, legs and wings. Many had asymmetrical bodies, others formed an `S' shape. I saw leaves that had peculiar shapes, clovers that were dark red with yellow flowers instead of pink flowers. I heard from the local vet that there had been a number of calves born with deformities.

"The local people were terrified and very depressed. They didn't know what was safe to eat and what wasn't. They had been told that they could eat everything from their gardens except berries and mushrooms, but everything was so uncertain that nobody knew what to believe. I got in touch with the local scientists at the University of Umea to find out if they were undertaking similar studies. But no one showed any interest in my work, nor were they doing any of their own."

Hesse-Honegger returned to Switzerland with her findings. Excited and appalled by what she had found, she immediately notified the Institute, expecting them to be fascinated. Once again she met with a lack of interest. The attitude of the entomologists was that her work was mere assertion; science was objective, art was subjective; her work had no place in the scientific arena.

One scientist working at the Institute of Radiation Study in Zurich was interested enough to suggest placing her specimens on photographic paper and leaving them for a month to see if the radiation dose was large enough to affect the paper. But the project was cancelled by his superior. Another scientist provided her with maps of the fallout from Chernobyl and data, referring to the wind conditions and rainfall at the time. He made it clear, however, that she should not call him at work.

"Scientists in Switzerland are afraid, and react emotionally and aggressively when challenged," she said. "One referred to me as a bitch, another would show his students my work to explain the extent to which some stupid people will go to prove that low-level radiation is harmful. Later, when my work was published, a scientist said I was personally responsible for the fact that a group of women in southern Switzerland had had abortions after Chernobyl.

"I now realise that it is totally logical that a woman artist should be doing this work. Switzerland is a very patriarchal society: women didn't even get the vote here until the Seventies. As a woman, I think that I have a greater empathy with my surroundings. I have much more freedom than a scientist. An artist is not fixed by some doctrine or philosophy; I can quite easily say that I do not believe what I believed yesterday. Artists are emotional and subjective. What we do has nothing to do with logic or rationality. We work with random systems. The artist does not need to know what he is doing; the scientist will pick that up later and explain it. But the initial exploration is always done by the artist.

This has always been the case. In the 15th century, art was 100 years ahead of science. Nowadays, that gap has almost completely closed, but I truly believe that we cannot really see something that has not been painted or put into an artistic form. It simply does not exist until then. I believe that the artist should be incorporated into the academic world, integrated into the learning of every subject."

Undeterred by the negative response from the scientists, Hesse-Honegger continued her research into the fallout cloud from Chernobyl. This time she went to Ticino in southern Switzerland. Once again, even though the levels of radiation were lower than in Sweden, she found similar deformities. She collected fruit flies from the area and reared them in her studio using techniques she had observed at the Institute. At the end of 1988, she published her findings in the national magazine Tages-Anzeiger Magazin. "The fruit fly is like a holy cow to the geneticist," she wrote. "I have not only reared my own, but have painted and observed the mutations over several generations. This was sacrilege for them."

There was total silence from the Institute; not a single article appeared on the subject. However, the response from the public was astounding. "People sent me deformed plants that they had found on the German border. Others told me of the deformed insects they had seen. I was sent a kitten that had been born with six legs and two tails and an open stomach. One woman, I remember, called me at the studio to say that her daughter was going to Sweden; she wanted to know if it was safe."

Hesse-Honegger's work had struck a chord with the public. "I realised that I could change the way people looked at their environment," she explained. "This was a great comfort to me. I knew that I didn't need to be embraced by the scientist."

In 1989, she began to study the countryside near nuclear power stations. She explored the Melano and Mendrisio Leibstadt areas of southern Switzerland. Over the next few years she travelled to Sellafield, Creys-Malville in France, Chernobyl, and the Three Mile Island and Peach Bottom reactors in the US. In each place she found further deformities. Ulcers on the antennae and genitals, malformations of the wings, unusual brown markings on the hard chitin that serves as insects' external skeleton. "I can now say that certain deformities can only be found downwind of a nuclear power plant," she says confidently. "What seems to happen is that the symmetry of the animal is disturbed. The malformations always occur on

only one side of the body, and they can be tiny disturbances. One cell carrying information, for example, for the growth of the left wing is damaged resulting in a deformity, while the cell carrying information for the right wing is perfectly normal. These are not generational mutations - the effects are much more chaotic than that. So one year a generation of bugs can be affected, and the next year another generation appears normal. I discovered that, after one Swiss reactor had been closed for a year- and-a-half, the numbers of deformities I found decreased dramatically."

When it finally came, the response from the scientific establishment in Switzerland to Hesse-Honegger's work was straightforward. The scientists had two main arguments. First, their work in the laboratories suggested that that type of damage to an insect results from much higher levels of radiation. Secondly, radiation levels from the accident at Chernobyl and the emissions from a nuclear power plant are insignificant when compared to those of background radiation. These arguments send Hesse-Honegger into a rage. "The way of thinking at these universities and institutes," she says, "is old-fashioned and too linear. Radiation is not logical, it works in a very random way. It is like shooting a gun. The number of bullets in a gun only affects the likelihood of being hit, but if there is only one bullet in the gun and you are unlucky enough to get hit, you suffer the same consequences. Radiation works in the same way: even if you only ingest one isotope, you can still get cancer." She regards it as equally unscientific to compare background radiation with man-made radiation. "It is like comparing a potato with a car. We are talking about Chernobyl!"

In all this time there has been only one scientist who has been supportive - an entomologist in Sweden who collected Drosophila in the same part of the country as Hesse-Honegger. They would swap samples and notes with each other, but, rather than openly meet to discuss the work at his university, he would insist on clandestine meetings on street corners and in cafes off campus. She is shocked and saddened that scientists do not get out of the laboratory to study the environment in the way she does. "They are trying to protect radiation from the people, rather than the other way around," she said. "I think they are working for the industry. They must be aware of the disturbances to nature; they are not stupid. But if they have done their own research, they have kept their findings secret. They know enough about radiation to start telling people the truth. But there is a career structure and hierarchy in the scientific world that manipulates and determines the outcome of so much of the work they do. I remember when I was working at the Institute, we used to manipulate what I saw by touching things up slightly or by altering a colour. Once I was asked to make the hairs on a Drosophila a little longer so that it would conform more to their idea of what it should look like. It was acceptable to me then because I believed in what they were doing"

This is an extract from `Real Lives, Half Lives: Tales from the Atomic Wasteland' by Jeremy Hall, published as a Penguin Original on 25 April, price pounds 6.99

Cornelia Hesse-Honegger's paintings are soon to be exhibited in the UK. For details, contact Locus+, Newcastle-upon-Tyne (01865-276944)

The fallout from Chernobyl

At 1.30am on Saturday 26 April, 1986, a huge explosion blasted the roof off the fourth reactor (Unit 4) at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant, 130km north of Kiev in the Ukraine. The force of the blast scattered highly radioactive debris a distance of a mile. The accident is seen as the worst technological catastrophe in human history.

A recent UN report estimates that 160,000 square kilometres in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia (an area the size of England, Wales and Northern Ireland) were contaminated and that at least nine million people have been affected by the accident either directly or indirectly. At least 400,000 people left their homes.

After the accident, official reports stated that a total of 50 million curies (a curie is equivalent to 3.7 x 1010 radioactive disintegrations per second) were released into the atmosphere. The Soviet government claimed that only 13 per cent of the core's caesium and 20 per cent of its iodine were released. They based these figures on the belief that the 5,000 tonnes of boron, sand and lead dropped by helicopter on to the burning core had absorbed the radioactivity. However, new research argues that the figure is more likely to be between 120 and 150 million curies. Samples from the reactor's core have revealed limited traces of boron, sand or lead. In other words, the helicopters missed.

As the radioactive cloud drifted across Britain, heavy rainfall over North Wales, Cumbria, North Yorkshire, Scotland and Northern Ireland helped to contaminate pastures, with caesium 137 predominantly affecting hill farming. In January 1996 restrictions were still in place over the movement and slaughter of more than 317,000 sheep in 219 farms. A total of more than pounds 12 million has so far been paid in compensation to affected farms.

In July 1987, a trial was held in the town of Chernobyl, ten miles south of the nuclear plant. The proceedings were conducted in secret. After three weeks, the verdicts were announced. Victor Bryukhanov, the director of the Chernobyl power station, was sentenced to ten years' hard labour for criminal negligence and abuse of power. The plant's chief engineer, Nikolai Fomin, and his deputy, Anatoly Dyatlov, also received ten years' hard labour. Boris Rogozhkin, the shift leader at Unit 4, was sentenced to five years. The director of the damaged reactor, Alexander Kovalenko, was given three years; Yuri Laushkin, a senior engineer, received two years.

No internationally co-ordinated study is being carried out to assess the health of the "liquidators", the hundreds of thousands of people who helped extinguish the flames from the burning reactor core.

By 1987, a growing number of elderly people were returning to their homes within the 30-mile exclusion zone surrounding the Chernobyl nuclear plant. The number now living within the zone is estimated to be 700 to 800.

In 1988 Pravda reported that sloppy repairs, drunkenness and nepotism were rampant at the Chernobyl plant, where managers were acting "as though there hadn't been an accident". In May of last year, the Office of Energy Intelligence, part of the US Department of Energy, published a report identifying nine nuclear reactors in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union as being so dangerous that they could cause another accident on the scale of Chernobyl. The report singled out the Chernobyl plant for specific criticism: "Today conditions... are in many ways worse than those that existed prior to the disastrous 1986 accident.

In September 1988, cancer specialists in Scotland were mystified by a 37 per cent increase in childhood leukaemia. The research, published in The Lancet, showed that in 1987 there were 48 cases of leukaemia, 13 more than might have been expected by chance, and 33 of the cases were below the age of four, as opposed to an average of 19 per year recorded between 1970 and 1980. The scientists stated that they could not rule out the influence of Chernobyl.

In January 1989, the Scottish Universities Research and Reactor Centre discovered disturbingly high levels of radioactive caesium in Scotland. On the hills north of Loch Rannoch, levels of between 20,000 and 40,000 becquerels per square metre were detected. Government estimates had been between 500 to 1,000 becquerels.

Following the accident in the Ukraine, the UK government announced that emergency plans for British accidents were adequate and that detailed plans were required only for nuclear accidents overseas. But in March 1989 research conducted by 50 local authorities called for a radical overhaul of British emergency arrangements. The report stated that Britain is the only country in the world that restricts its nuclear reactor emergency zone to a six-mile radius. It also criticised arrangements for storing and distributing potassium iodide, which helps protect against absorption of radiation.

In October 1991, a second disaster at the Chernobyl plant was narrowly avoided when a fire broke out in the second reactor. The fire caused the turbine to speed up uncontrollably. The vibrations weakened the metal trusses of the turbine hall to such an extent that the roof collapsed. The falling structure in turn damaged the water feed pumps, with the result that coolant could not be injected into the reactor and its core began to overheat. Racing against time, plant engineers set about aligning a low-pressure, non-safety-grade water pump. In order to begin pumping water in, they had to reduce the pressure in the reactor. With no formal procedure to follow, engineers drained the existing coolant in the already overheated reactor; fortunately it worked.

The effect of the Chernobyl accident upon the nuclear power industry has been dramatic. At the end of last year, only 36 nuclear power plants were being built in the world, the smallest number under construction at any time since 1970. Immediately after the accident, all plans for constructing nuclear power stations in the former Soviet Union were postponed. In Austria, the government announced that it would immediately begin dismantling a new Zwentendorf reactor. The plant had not had a single day in operation.

In West Germany, the already fierce opposition to the country's nuclear power programme intensified, resulting in the eventual closure of the reprocessing plant at Wackersdorf in the south of the country. The one functioning reactor in Yugoslavia was shut down ten months after the accident. The Italian nuclear programme was phased out by 1988. Spain confirmed that the 1983 moratorium on building nuclear power plants would remain in place. Sweden confirmed that their nuclear programme would be phased out by the year 2010.

Although in the US no nuclear power station has been ordered since 1979, an angry debate focused on the last operating reactor at the military nuclear site, Hanford. The issue centred on the design features that the site's "N" reactor had in common with the Chernobyl reactor. "N" reactor was eventually closed in 1987.

It was disclosed that sheep in the Soviet Union which had been contaminated by the radiation had been slaughtered and fed to mink farmed for the fur trade.

In 1990 and 1991, a significant increase in thyroid cancer in Belarus, Ukraine and Russia was recorded. The President of the European Thyroid Cancer Association, Dilwyn Williams, has stated that thousands of children exposed to radiation from Chernobyl will contract thyroid cancer over the next 30 years.

Due to the latency period associated with radioactivity, the true picture of the effects of the Chernobyl accident on human health is still incomplete. The Government of Belarus claims that there is a proven increase in kidney, bladder, lung and breast cancer in the Gomel region, north of Chernobyl. The World Health Organisation maintains, however, that only an exacting epidemiological study over several decades will be able to assess the true health effects to the population. Many believe that the worst is yet to come.

Hesse-Honegger's paintings of insects changed dramatically after the Chernobyl disaster on 26 April, 1986: Rhaphigaster nebulosa (below left), a leaf bug found at Kussaberg, Germany, 1991, has a lack of symmetry caused by a blister below the neck plate. A leather bug (below right) found in 1990 at Polesskoye, near the Chernobyl power station, has misshapen, crumpled wings

Cornelia Hesse-Honegger (opposite) with a painting in progress. Fire bugs (below, from left): the first, from Bernau, 1990, has abnormally light-coloured left legs and soft, rather than hard, chitin; the second, from the area near `Checkpoint Charlie', 1990, has a deformed neck plate and asymmetrical spots on wing cases; the third, from Brugg, 1990, has abnormal wings, with the left one very short and bent

Scorpion fly (above) from Leibstadt, close to a Swiss nuclear power plant. Two damsel bugs (above right) from Villigen, Switzerland, 1990, have damaged wings; one (far right) also has an abnormal neck plate

Comments