The Project

The “Mercury” installation seeks to inform the public about environmental impacts to seafood and the need for conserving our oceans and seas. My intent as a sculptor is to reflect contemporary social issues through figure-oriented installations. I believe that visual art triggers questions that can provoke thought and affect inquiry. As an artist I study scientific, medical, governmental issues and translate the information visually through narrative art. The Mercury Art + Science website is intended as a resource about environmental mercury. The site records the research I conducted as part of my art practice in forming the “Mercury” installation and related sculptures and photography.

My research into areas of science began with, “Garden” (2010) an installation that conveys issues about industrialized farming and the impacts of current farming practices to our food sources. “Summers’ Over” (2011) explores the effects of the Gulf Oil Spill upon aquatic biota, specifically the Gulf Menhaden, a small bait fish and food source to larger species. (See for images of these sculptures.)

The visual concept for the “Mercury” installation was evolved from ideas about vulnerability and the need for cleansing. Here the ceramic figure is a metaphor for both the human body and its external environment. I studied art historical precedents of the woman in the bath to develop a contemporary version of the bath figure which sits in the center of the installation.

I conducted interviews with health professionals about the human health impacts of eating seafood known to contain mercury. This revealed that mercury removal from the human body was complex, and difficult and to some very questionable. Library research, reading, and on-line investigations about Minamata Disease, showed the horrific effects.  Mercury impacts the nervous system and can invade the brain barrier. Holistic cures like chelation were cited. The American Medical Association approaches were limited at best. Opinions differ about if and how to remove this powerful toxin from the human body.

How does mercury get into the environment and impact us? Are all forms of mercury toxic? With these questions in mind I contacted scientists at the University of Florida, colleagues who work with fish and wildlife. Methyl-mercury is introduced into waterways through coal mining in the United States and through mining gold in other parts of the world. I narrowed my focus to coal producing power plants as the industry in the USA that causes environmental methy-mercury emissions. I began researching which fish were greatly impacted and why. The overfished Bluefin tuna, a pelagic fish became my subject and symbol for contamination in the art work.  I located mercury scientists in the United States and interviewed Daniel Obrist by phone to further understand his advanced research on mercury deposition and bio-magnification (See – I visited marine labs, conducted interviews; in person, on the phone and via Skype with American and Israeli mercury scientists. I collected data, website links, took notes, videotaped discussions. I thought about what imagery would offer a readable narrative. I wanted to create an artwork that placed the viewer within an underwater setting along side of the sculpted fish. I wanted to surround the audience with large scale photo-montages that conveyed a sense of urgency and a need for escape.

I worked in collaboration with national geographic wildlife photographer Brain Skerry who offered his images of bluefin taken during rigorous, underwater dives for use in this project. I travelled to the Monterey Bay Aquarium to photograph the bluefin tuna they have on site. Within my installation mercury is being carried and moves freely via the vintage sleuth; the mercury coupes. These model ceramic cars collide with the fish and become distorted as a symbol of toxicity being released into the ecosystem. The tuna, however, is transformed. It appears within the center of the installation as canned food apparently available nonetheless for human consumption.

Special thanks to the scientists who offered their time and research information to me in support of this project; especially Dr. Andrew Kane, Director Aquatic Pathology Laboratory at the University of Florida, and Dr. Arik Diamant, National Center for Mariculture, Israel. I also wish to thank the scientists who allowed me to interview them: Dr. Daniel Obrist, Desert Research Institute, Reno, Nevada, Dr. Barak Herut, Director, Dr. Nurit Kress, and Dr. Efrat Shoham-Frider, Mercury Scientists, Israel Oceanographic and Limnological Research LTD., Hafia, Israel, Dr. Muki Speigel, Dr. Bill Koven and Dr. Amos Tandler, who work on the domestication of bluefin tuna, National Center for Mariculture, Eilat, Israel,  Dr. Tamar Zohary, Director of the Kinneret Limnological Laboratory, Migdal, Israel which monitors and studies water cleansing in Lake Kinneret..

Without the support of Dr. Margaret Mertz, Assistant Dean for Faculty Research, The College of Fine Arts and Dr. David Norton, Vice President for Research, The University of Florida my research travel to marine labs in Israel would not have been possible. You both have my gratitude and appreciation.

A personal thank you to – Brian Skerry, National Geographic Underwater Photographer for his support, interest and photographic collaboration; your generosity is as wonderful as your call for conservation . My gratitude and thanks to Alan Saperstein for his interest in the project and for his video “Mercury Flow”. Special thanks to Allen Cheuvront for his critique of my photographs and for supporting my evolution as a photographer. I will always be indebted to you. Melissa Mogensen I appreciate your work to help design and create this website!

The Mercury installation and associated art works were supported by a generous research award from the University of Florida’s Scholarship Enhancement Fund.

Nan Smith
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© Nan Smith 2013. No images from this website may be reproduced without permission