Microscopic in the Anthropocene

Microscopic In The Anthropocene 08

Attachments for the Microscopic in the Anthropocene: Polar Oceanscapes in the Art of Judit Hersko and Ursula Biemann
Lisa E. Bloom, Ph.D.


Art, as the vehicle of aesthesis, is central to thinking with and feeling through the Anthropocene.

  • Heather Davis & Etienne Turpin, Art in the Anthropocene, 2015, 2.[i]

When dealing with the ocean, what happens in one part of the planet effects us all.

  • Alaina Claire Feldman, Ocean After Nature, 2017, 16.[ii]


The worsening climate crisis that the planet faces has transformed the way we perceive human interaction with the natural environment. This is especially the case in the polar regions where we are witnessing the accelerated melting of the polar ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica at unprecedented rates and the uneven scale of its climate impacts. The natural/human history divide can be examined by drawing on new forms of thinking that are expanding feminist art history’s archive to engage with natural history about the oceans and climate in the Anthropocene. Artists such as Judit Hersko and Ursula Biemann. are absorbing some of the more unthinkable aspects of climate science and transforming them into affecting art practices and can contribute to our thinking about the various crises concerning the complex web of marine life and the inseparable link between oceans and climate.      

Art of the Arctic is not just as an illustration of planetary demise and a call for action, but is a challenge to our imagination.[iii] Drawing from recent feminist environmental writing on new materialism,[iv] we can focus on the way in which microscopic creatures and even microorganisms in the melting polar ice are life forms that have a strange agential power that can change the climate. Such ideas about how such small planktonic organisms such as the sea angel and the sea butterfly can have so much power, are at odds in a world where our scale of measure prefers large mammals such as polar bears as the icons of anthropogenic climate change. It is important to challenge and rethink our assumptions about size but also temporality. Both artists discussed use time as an artistic material and bring the lived experiences of humans into deeper time scales. Whereas Hersko’s recalibration of environmental time is evoked through bringing together the life cycle of planktonic organisms with that of human experience during the Anthropocene, Ursula Biemann’s work connects viewers to the deeper time scale of microorganisms that were released from ancient ice melts 400,000 year ago that preceded human history and are still alive today.


Judit Hersko is an installation artist and professor at California State University, San Marcos, and works in the intersection of art and science. Her work connects the vexed history of women’s place in both the Arctic and Antarctica to a world beyond the history of the human family to bring together “the feminist question of the scale of the personal” to the geological. Hersko has been working on these topics since 2008, when she first traveled to Antarctica with the US National Science Foundation Artists and Writers Program. Driven as she is with questions of time, perception and changing notions of nature, her ephemeral artwork is about creating an aesthetic of disappearance, an aesthetics that resonates with the fate of the human and non-human in climate change today as well as in prior human extinguishing events (as in the Nazi Holocaust). In doing so, she is reappraising beauty in art of the Anthropocene from a feminist perspective and is thinking through the idea of how aesthetics can operate through science to produce new visual knowledges that respond to the emotional disturbance of living with and witnessing climate change.[v]

            In her performance piece and installation work titled “Pages from the Book of the Unknown Explorer” (2008–2018), Hersko derives her aesthetic from an earlier historical moment of surrealist photography by using photo collages, transparent sculptures, and cinematic projections to emphasize the shadow, light, and transparency of images and place. To do this, she draws on forms and styles rarely if ever used in relation to the polar regions. Inspired by the Surrealist albums of Victorian women, who invented a method of photo collage later adopted by avant-garde artists, Hersko borrows this aesthetic style to visually render the placement of humans and nonhumans in circumstances they could not ordinarily inhabit to bring together natural and human history.

Kate Edith Gough [Photograph]. (1870s). From the Gough Album

Figure 1. Kate Edith Gough [Photograph]. (1870s). From the Gough Album. 

To reveal how visually out of place her fictional explorer, photographer and biologist from the 1930s, Anna Schwartz, might have been on these expeditions, Hersko creates compelling photomontages that place Schwartz, into already existing photographs of Admiral Byrd’s Antarctic exploration from that same period.  

Hersko, J. (2011). “With Admiral Byrd’s Expedition in Antarctica,” (collage by         Anna Schwartz) [Photograph]

Hersko, J. (2011). “With Admiral Byrd’s Expedition in Antarctica,” (collage by Anna Schwartz) [Photograph]. Courtesy of Artist

Although she had originally planned to travel to the Arctic where the sea butterfly and the sea angel were equally abundant, she ended up in the Antarctic, where she had to disguise herself as a man (no women were allowed on such expeditions), to join Byrd’s exhibit to replace a male photographer and typist who had fallen ill to record scientific data.

Hersko’s performance lecture and installations present an alternate and unlikely photographic and cinematic history of exploration and climate science in the Arctic and Antarctic through a unique rewriting of a Jewish woman’s presence in these histories.  Her purpose is to shift our view of the polar regions from the traditional (white male) polar explorer’s perspective of remote wilderness and conquest represented in this earlier period to the climatic and connect the Anthropocene to the nonhuman.

Hersko’s portrait of the “Unknown Explorer” emphasizes the contingent nature of Anna Schwartz’s heroism as well as the surprising obsession and motivation from another time for her clandestine expedition to Antarctica to document seemingly insignificant microscopic creatures. Hersko’s art focuses on what is hidden and otherwise difficult to see – two transparent planktonic snails, the Clione antarctica (sea angel) and the microscopic Limacina helicina (sea butterfly) that live in the icy depths of the Southern and Arctic Oceans.

Hersko, J. (2008). Silicone Portrait of Anna Schwartz with Pteropods (from the scientific notebooks of Anna       Schwartz) [Photograph]

Figure 3. Hersko, J. (2008). Silicone Portrait of Anna Schwartz with Pteropods (from the scientific notebooks of Anna Schwartz) [Photograph]. Courtesy of the Artist

Hersko’s transparent sculptures of these fragile creatures appear out of place, but deliberately transform the portrait of her fictional character Schwartz and the letter she writes to explain her sudden disappearance to Antarctica.

Hersko, J. (2008). Silicone Portrait of Pteropods with Anna Schwartz’s letter (from the scientific notebooks of       Anna Schwartz [Photograph] 

Figure 4. Hersko, J. (2008). Silicone Portrait of Pteropods with Anna Schwartz’s letter (from the scientific notebooks of Anna Schwartz [Photograph]. Courtesy of the Artist

Hersko, J. (2011). Sea Butterfly [Photograph]

Figure 5. Hersko, J. (2011). Sea Butterfly [Photograph]. Courtesy of the Artist

She makes clear that these planktonic snails were plentiful in the days of her ‘unknown’ woman explorer in both oceans, but now due to the effects of ocean acidification the oceans are no longer maintaining its chemical balance and their shells are dissolving.  Her highly aestheticized and sensuous photographic images of these elusive creatures, introduce us to these pteropods that are usually seen only through deep-sea submersibles and videos and are still barely known if not unknowable forms of life that inhabit the bottom of the Arctic and Southern oceans. Her work addresses the importance of making these otherwise fluid and fragile creatures visible in the era of the Anthropocence, to further our understanding of how their decline is entangled with the violent changes in our environment that is connected to politics and the survival of the ocean’s ecosystem.

It is significant that the danger to the pteropods that interests Hersko is less spectacular and less familiar to the public than iconic popular images of climate change featuring polar bears under threat from global warming. By contrast to these larger poster children of climate change, Hersko’s creatures are microscopic and her narrative draws our attention to the surreal contrast between the pteropod’s size and the herculean task they provide to the oceanic food chain. Though they might appear unremarkable and everyday in the ocean, their disappearance due to ocean acidification make them now widely considered the “canaries in the coal mine” for the ocean in the era of climate change.

Hersko’s narrative and archive are symbolic of alternate histories and possibilities since they imagine what women’s contribution to science, polar exploration, and art history might have been in Arctic and Antarctica’s early history if women’s relationship to these regions were not merely speculative during Anna Schwartz’s era. For this reason, Hersko’s fictional narrative insists that one must take into account the imaginative histories that run alongside real polar histories. Her archive of images on the Arctic and Antarctic is suitably dreamlike and includes projected cinematic images, etched photographic images on glass and silicone of pteropods, and photomontages that deliberately draw on photographic tropes from the period to give the pictures a “reality effect”. At the same time, her work disorients us since she puts people and organisms in an order and place they would not normally inhabit such as the unlikely inclusion of Schwartz and her study of pteropods in Antarctica at the time that Jews in Europe were fleeing the Nazis. In other words, by shifting the history of polar exploration even slightly, Hersko alters our perception of the present and helps us understand how the rhetoric of both Antarctic exploration narratives and polar climate change connects up to other intersectional human histories and extends to the nonhuman.

For her narrative, Hersko draws on both a rich artistic and literary tradition, including Ursula Le Guin’s short story “Sur” (1982), a utopian feminist fictional account about an exploration in which a party of South American women reach the South Pole in 1909, two years before the official arrival of the real exploration teams of Amundsen and Scott.[vi] Hersko’s work is influenced by the women characters in Le Guin’s fantasy who do not feel compelled to leave any record, or proof, of their presence at the South Pole, as evidenced by one of the characters’ activities of fashioning sculptures from ice. Like the disappearing ice sculptures in Le Guin’s short story, Hersko’s artwork and narrative can be preserved only as ephemeral objects, not in heroic monuments that celebrate male narratives and imagery from the Heroic Age of Exploration.

Ursula Beimann’s “Subatlantic” (2015)     

By contrast to Hersko’s speculative eco-feminist art practice, Subatlantic combines both a science fictional and documentary approach. It is an equally fascinating piece but more focused on the volatile period of the Subatlantic, the climatic age we are currently in which started 2500 years ago and represents the latest part of the geological age of the Holocene which started nearly 12,000 years ago, after the last ice melt. Here, Biemann who is also interested in an aesthetic of disappearance is influenced by research by climate scientists reconstructing the end of the last ice age and the dramatic rise in sea level in regions like the Shetland Islands that began from the last ice melt 12,000 year ago and continued for several thousand years. Like Hersko, Biemann also creates the figure of the female scientist who travels through time. But her scientist moves through several thousand years across different temporalities to speak from a premodern reality to address a similar situation recurring again today. Her fieldwork in locations far apart from each other- Greenland’s Disco Bay, the Shetland Islands, and a small unnamed island in the Caribbean, is determined by her focus on the Subatlantic, submerged dispersed spaces of the Atlantic ocean which is surprisingly connected to each other through invisible ocean streams.

The first scene of Subatlantic begins with views from above of the rocky steep coast of the Shetland Island. We hear the wind as much as we see what appears to be a pristine coastal island landscape.

Biemann, U. (2015). Still from Subatlantic [Photograph]. Shetland Islands

Figure 6. Biemann, U. (2015). Still from Subatlantic [Photograph]. Shetland Islands. Courtesy of the Artist

Listening is signaled from the outset as important as seeing, and there are many natural sounds in the background throughout the film as the locations vary. A female narrator introduces us to a fictional female character who is an unnamed scientist that we never meet and refers to herself in the third person: “She is in charge of measuring fluctuations and sending the data to the lab on the coast. She inventories the freezing and melting, minutely recording her encounters with difference.” Throughout the video, the human figure is present only acoustically and in profound juxtaposition with the visuals of the unpeopled landscape.  

The narrative is only rendered plausible through the use of scientific instruments. But unexpectedly science here seems both embodied and sensuous, not detached and shorn of affect. The female narrator’s poetic voice draws us in to make us think of the aesthetic dimension of doing science in the field at multiple sites and underwater. “She makes efforts to attune her eyes to see underwater and fuse with the swarming sea where the tiniest of microbes operate on an inter-oceanic scale.”  We are shown close-ups of the tiniest of microbes and are told “some are 400,000 years old and still alive.”

Biemann, U. (2016). Microbes [Photograph]. Still from Subatlantic

Figure 7.  Biemann, U. (2016). Microbes [Photograph]. Still from Subatlantic. Courtesy of Artist


These new genetic materials released from the ice sheets make us think of how human agencies are entangled with these sensuous nonhuman creatures, rather than being discrete and separate. Like Hersko’s pteropods (Chapter One), Biemann’s fascination with the life of microorganisms is connected to the wider contemporary feminist return to nature, that is not a return to the kinds of traditional biological gender arrangements that have justified gender equality or white racial privilege. Rather, her work, like Hersko’s, tends to turn away from the traditional essentialist position of woman-as-nature towards a renaturalization of matter that comes out of feminist writing on new materialism by Karen Barad, Mel Chen, and others.[vii] The female scientist’s aesthetically rendered scenes of water and organisms and her more poetic style of expression help us to understand her fascination with these new genetic materials that were released from the ice after 400,000 years, for a period longer than humanity has existed.

Melting polar ice from Greenland is a focus of the next section of the video. Its moving image, sound and movement animates the video and is seen as the force that can stir up an entire ocean through the transformation of the flow of its currents. The female scientist explains: “…. the ocean streams will slow down before they stop altogether. Will England’s climate resemble Labrador’s? There was questioning in the water… Water chemistry tells its stories of ancient ice melts, forgotten and retold.”

The video essay depicts our speedy course into an unknown future from phenomena that are already underway. Still, there is something profoundly discomfiting to imagine the consequences of such unthinkable aspects of climate science recurring from stories of ancient ice melts. We are introduced to the time scale of deep-time as we watch the video about a patient and careful female scientist who travel through time to meticulously record the same physical processes recurring again that were released during the thawing of the last Ice Age thanks to higher levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide. CO2 led the prior round of global warming but back then it was responsible for warming the planet and ushering in the current climate that enabled humanity to thrive. But today, the warming from rising emissions and other greenhouse gases will have the opposite effect as it has already ushered in a climate breakdown that is already being felt planet-wide.

The work of Ursula Biemann, and Judit Hersko reinvent documentary practices to address new forms of doing art and science, to represent anew the relation between the human and the non-human in the Anthropocene. In so doing, these artists create new forms of imaginative “polar aesthetics” that represents the calamitous repercussions climate change poses across a range of temporal and emotional scales.

Their viewpoints suggest some important new directions in contemporary art, and in the process, their work makes us think about how feminist perspectives  in the Anthropocene shift away from the traditional (white male) polar explorer’s perspective of remote wilderness and conquest represented in earlier Arctic and Antarctic art to the climatic that focuses on marine creatures and microrganisms that are on the frontlines of the climate crisis that inhabit the volatile oceanscapes of extreme climate change. Moreover, in moving away from the age of polar exploration to the era of the Anthropocene, the article presents a more situated style of art and environmental art writing that challenges these older art historical perspectives and colonial and masculinist premises that structured this earlier polar imaginary and its art.

Viewers’ aesthetic experiences of their work is not just about oceanscapes, the masculinist heroic subjectivity but also subjectivity itself, be it male or female since their narrative is about rethinking polar oceanscapes where marine life is on the verge of disappearance due to Anthropogenic climate change. What they mourn in their work, like the Nazi Holocaust that Hersko evokes, is the eventual disappearance of species both human and nonhuman, the loss of certainty, and the disruption of the stable coordinates of time and space.


Lisa Bloom is an American cultural critic, educator and feminist art historian specializing in polar studies, contemporary art, environmental art, history of photography, visual culture and film studies.

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