ART MARKET / Vision of a Mutant Age: Through a series of paintings depicting deformed insect life, a Swiss artist is using her skill to emphasise the dangers to the environment of nuclear power

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The Independent Culture
CORNELIA Hesse-Honegger is using the art market to wage a propaganda battle of global significance. A Swiss scientific draughtsman - or is it draughtsperson, nowadays? - she paints mutant insects, working with tiny brushes under a microscope to ensure precision.

The insects were collected from areas around nuclear power plants, including post-disaster Chernobyl and Sellafield. Her paintings, usually 15cm high, depict the mutations inflicted on insect life by low-level radiation. 'I am amazed,' she says. 'They build nuclear power stations but no one is looking at what goes on afterwards.' Her paintings have caused an angry backlash in Switzerland from scientists who claim low levels of radiation represent no danger. 'It is a real taboo,' says Cornelia, 'because so much money is involved and power.'

She says no one has made a comprehensive study of the effects of low levels of artificial radiation; the claim that it does no harm is based on hunch. Her paintings are intended to show visually, and thus emotionally, the effect of nuclear plants on their environment. People looking at the paintings must inevitably ask: 'If that's the effect it's having on insects, what is it doing to humans?'

A group of Hesse-Honegger's paintings are on exhibition at the Swiss Institute in New York until 30 October. The prices range from dollars 2,800 ( pounds 1,800) for Ivy leaves from Mendrisio, Switzerland, 1987, to dollars 10,000 for Backs of 13 different flies (Diptera) from Gockhausen, Switzerland, 1981- 82. 'She has priced them so high that they are more or less unsaleable,' says Karin Kuoni, who runs the gallery. 'But she has done it on purpose - she doesn't want to sell.'

'I know there is a price list,' Cornelia explained to me, 'but nothing is to be sold without my permission. I'd like to keep them and perhaps the whole collection could go to a museum one day.'

Cornelia's parents are both artists. Her father, Gottfried Honegger, is a painter and sculptor of some fame who lives in Paris. Her mother makes what she calls 'children's books for grown-ups' with careful abstract illustrations. During Cornelia's childhood, however, they all lived in Zurich. 'I met a lot of artists through my parents,' she says. 'I felt I didn't want to make the kind of free, imaginary art that is fashionable nowadays. I always wanted to draw animals - in our times, that is not considered art - and I was also interested in science.'

Thus after spending one year at Zurich art school at the age of 16, she was apprenticed to a professor of zoology at the university as a trainee scientific draughtsman. She also studied lithography in Paris but says that she learnt most of her artistic skills from her father.

She had her first experience of mutant insects in the late 1960s when she was required to draw mutated Drosophila flies that were being used by scientists at Zurich's Zoological Institute to study gene heredity. 'I remember being strangely discomfited by the contrast between the mutated flies and the normal ones,' she says.

She married in 1969 and devoted most of the next 15 years to bringing up her two sons, though she taught scientific drawing at a technical college in Zurich and painted insects that she found in the countryside in her spare time. She noticed over the years that the insects were growing scarcer and became increasingly worried about the health of the natural world around her.

Then came 1986 and the blow-out at Chernobyl. 'I realised that my laboratory experiments were now being duplicated on human beings and on flora and fauna.' She made her first radiation-oriented voyage of exploration in 1987, travelling to Sweden to the area around Gavle, which was supposed to have received the highest fallout from Chernobyl of any Western country.

She found flies with short, ill-shaped antennae or legs, with black growths on their eyes and disturbed wing growth in the larval stage; there were also dark-red plant leaves and flowers that had changed colour. She published her results in the Swiss magazine Das Magazin the following year and was criticised by established scientists. Their chief complaint was that one delicate drawing of a bug does not constitute a scientific study; a careful statistical comparison of the frequency of mutations near nuclear plants and far away from them was required.

Criticism spurred Cornelia on to make a more comprehensive study. She started to visit the countryside around Swiss nuclear plants, expecting to find much less damage than in areas where accidents had happened. However, walking in the direction of the prevailing wind from the Gosgen nuclear power plant, she found a great number of terribly deformed bugs and cicadas.

Hooked on the study, she spent her 1989 summer holidays around the nuclear waste reprocessing plant at Sellafield. She collected 434 insects, mostly Heteroptera bugs, frog-hoppers and ladybirds. 'I found the most damaged insects in the proximity of the Sellafield complex and the Drigg low-level-waste storage site and around the villages of Seascale, Calder Bridge and Ponsonby . . . In the hills near by, where the whole area gets fresh water, all the insects looked healthy.'

In 1990 she got the chance to visit Chernobyl itself with a group of journalists and parliamentarians. In Polesskoje, west of the exclusion zone, almost every bug she found was heavily mutated. In Kiev, by comparison, almost all the insects she found were normal.

Finally, in 1991, she travelled to the Three Mile Island plant in Pennsylvania, where there was a serious accident in 1979. She found all the now familiar mutations: crumpled feet, changes in colour and shape, disturbed antennae, various growths on eyes and bellies and dark spots on wings. Last year an exhibition of her paintings titled 'After Chernobyl' was mounted at the Milan Triennale. The fame of her little drawings is beginning to grow.

Cornelia's insects are also, in bizarre contrast, appearing on silks used by Yves St Laurent, Balmain and other couturiers. She has turned her nature studies into textile designs and supports her crusade by selling them.

(Photographs omitted)