Judit Hersko is an installation artist who works in the intersection of art and science. She collaborates with scientists on visualizing climate change science through art and narrative. Her work is rooted in extensive research as well as in a playful exploration of materials and phenomena of light, shadow and transparency. Her current practice involves story telling through performances that incorporate the objects she makes.
400 Parts Per Million
Sculptural Installation 2017
In collaboration with Dr. Ralph Keeling (son of Charles David Keeling)
400 Parts Per Million is a multi-object installation about climate change and ocean acidification caused by the relentless rise in atmospheric Carbon dioxide (CO2) that reached a dangerous global benchmark in 2016. This detail of the installation consists of an acrylic shelf that holds one million glass beads, some of which are loose and some of which are cast into sculptural forms. One of these forms is a pregnant female figure, based on Georges de la Tour’s painting of Mary Magdalen (The Magdalen with the Smoking Flame 1635-37). The figure is gazing in contemplation at a glass orb, one of the actual beakers used by scientists to collect air samples at the Mauna Loa observatory in Hawaii, where CO2 air measurements have taken place since 1958. The famous Keeling Curve is based on these measurements (Keeling Curve) and the beaker was donated to the artist by Dr. Ralph Keeling. There is a pile of 400 beads, which are slightly different from the rest, placed between the figure and the beaker to remind us that we have surpassed 400 parts CO2 per million air particles in the atmosphere despite warnings from scientists about the dangers.
The Anna Schwartz Letter
The Letter of Anna Schwartz, November 8, 1939 exposed to UV rays in Antarctica on paper treated with Bromocresol Green (PH indicator dye) plus Turmeric. (Due to moisture affecting this paper during exposure in Antarctica the script has faded to an illegible trace.)
Portrait of Anna Schwartz exposed to UV rays in Antarctica on paper treated with
Bromocresol Green (PH indicator dye).
November 8, 1939
I know I owe you an explanation. I left Budapest to visit Evelyn in New York and then I disappeared. There is no excuse for this but I hope you will understand when you hear the formidable series of events that took place after you last heard from me.
I think you know that Evelyn works in the library of Vilhjalmur Stefansson, the great arctic explorer, and is very close to him (more about this another time). Through him she is involved in all matters of polar exploration and knows everyone who counts in this field. I told her about my obsession with the tiny creatures of the Southern Ocean, the sea angel and the sea butterfly, and she agreed to introduce me to some people involved in planning the US Antarctic Service Expedition led by Admiral Byrd. While it appears my chances were zero to join an adventure largely consisting of US military men, fate would have it that I was introduced to the right person at the right time. I was invited to a dinner party loosely associated with the Explorer’s club (Stefansson presides over a lot of these parties at Romany Marie restaurant). There was a woman present by the name of Ruth Hampton who is one of the people representing the Department of the Interior on the Executive Committee of the United States Antarctic Service designated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt. (She was last in the news around the events following the disappearance of Amelia Earhart.) She listened politely to my exposition on the Clione antarctica and the Limacina helicina and my desire to go in search of them to Antarctica but that was the extent of it. However, in another twist of fate only a week later she contacted Evelyn and asked her if I could type. The Department of the Interior was in charge of hiring a few volunteers for the expedition for $10 per month in addition to food and clothing. They had a man lined up, a photographer and a decent typist but he had fallen ill and departure for the expedition is fast approaching. Ruth Hampton had remembered that I am a photographer and now they were in a pinch for someone to record scientific data in images and words. Of course I said I could type although you know as well as I do … well I am practicing right now. Fortunately she had no time to test me and trusted that as a woman I could type. At this time it is unclear how I will fit in with the rest of the crew. It appears that I may have to pass as a man to the outside world, which makes me nervous. They plan to bunk me separately in the instrument room claiming that I need to use the dark room and type until late at night. At the moment I am so excited I cannot worry about this (nor about developments in Poland, which is a topic for another letter). I have watched the Paramount film on Byrd’s second expedition to prepare myself. Byrd is very nervous in front of the camera but he seems to be an interesting and complex man. I cannot believe I will be in his proximity. I am leaving on the USMS North Star in exactly a week. Wish me good luck and expect to hear from me (hopefully) from the end of the world.
With love as always
Digital photograph 2009
In 2008 Judit Hersko followed her scientific collaborator, biological oceanographer Dr. Victoria Fabry, to Antarctica. Fabry studies the effects of ocean acidification on calcifying organisms such as the Limacina helicina (Anthropogenic ocean acidification over the twenty-first century and its impact on calcifying organisms). Already, under present conditions, this pelagic snail cannot form its shell in some parts of the oceans due to chemical changes caused by increased carbon dioxide uptake. The Limacina helicina is the sole food source of the Clione antarctica and thus their existence is intricately linked. In Hersko’s unknown explorer series these organisms connect the historical investigation of polar exploration with current issues of climate change, drawing a parallel between the unacknowledged labor of women and the invisible significance of microorganisms. During her stay in Antarctica with the National Science Foundation Antarctic Artists and Writers Grant (2008/2009) Hersko photographed the Clione antactica. The microscopic Limacina helicina escaped her eyes and her lens.
Unknown Explorer Series
UV Graphs 2008/2009
Portrait of Anna Schwartz
The Letter of Anna Schwartz, November 8, 1939
The UV Graphs were created with transparencies on sensitized paper exposed to UV rays for three weeks in Antarctica (2008/2009). The images are from the series entitled “Pages from the Book of the Unknown Explorer” that centers on a fictitious “unknown explorer” from the 1930s called Anna Schwartz. Schwartz’s character is loosely based on the biography of Hersko’s mother and her portrait is a photograph of the artist’s mother from the 1930s. The Letter Home is an account by the fictitious Anna Schwartz in which she tells the story of how she joined the Byrd Antarctic expedition (1939) disguised as a man. While most of the information presented in the letter is based on true facts and actual people, the insertion of the fictitious explorer speaks about the absence of women in Antarctic exploration and science until the late 1960s. In the letter Schwartz also describes her obsession with two plankton snails: the Limacina helicina (sea butterfly) and the Clione antarctica (sea angel). These pteropods studied by Hersko’s scientific collaborator, Dr. Victoria Fabry, are the canaries in the coalmine when it comes to ocean acidification. (Read about this project ‘Translating’ and ‘Retranslating’ Data)