Abnormal Investigations

Article excerpt

The Case of the Deviant Toad

The Royal Institution of Great Britain London

March 15-31, 2010

Malamp: The Occurrence of Deformities in Amphibians

By Brandon Ballengee

The Arts Catalyst, 2010

72 pp./$24.40 or [pounds sterling]15.95 (sb)

Many artists have attempted to bridge the gap between art and science, often as curious amateurs who adopt unfamiliar processes or methods associated with scientific (or quasi-scientific) approaches or as collaborators with scientists in order to bring new avenues and understandings about the world to scientific work--and vice versa.

In a rare and welcome contrast, Brandon Ballengee is both artist and scientist--more specifically a biologist and ecologist who specializes in amphibians and wetlands. His artistic work is merely one part of the output from his research and activist endeavors, which include specimen collection for numerous organizations in the United States, public engagement through lectures and field studies, and the jointly written scientific papers that formed the backbone for his first solo exhibition in the UK.

"The Case of the Deviant Toad," commissioned and curated by The Arts Catalyst and exhibited at The Royal Institution of Great Britain, was an exhibition of Ballengee's more recent work. Continuing from earlier investigations into multiple limb deformities found in toads across the U.S., Ballengee investigated occurrences of missing limbs in numerous UK toad populations from 2006 to 2008. Seeking an explanation for these deformities led him to explore the role of predatory insect larvae through experiments and observations carried out at the UK's Yorkshire Sculpture Park, confirming their role in these peculiar malformations.

Published to coincide with the exhibition, this investigation and resultant scientific paper (1) (as well as details of other exhibitions and critical essays) are documented in Ballengee's book, Malamp: The Occurrence of Deformities in Amphibians (2010). The visual motif of Ballengee's most recent exhibition and book are large-format prints made from scans of cleared and stained toad specimens. This process originally developed to investigate embryo development--renders flesh and skin transparent and stains bone and cartilage, revealing their development and configuration. The resulting scans create striking and intriguing images of toad skeletons akin to vividly colored x-rays. Accompanying these images within the exhibition were the original specimens, individually presented in clear, round display cases, each body carefully arranged post-mortem by Ballengee.

Surprisingly, as Lucy Lippard points out in her essay for Malamp, (2) the visualization of deformities in this manner does not create the feeling of uncase that we would expect from such disfigured animal forms. These bodies--the result of the ravages of a dangerous ecosystem are transformed into delicate and beautiful figures by the clearing and staining process, and Ballengee's careful handling.

Although the images work on an aesthetic level, there is a tension created when viewing the original specimens from which these scans are taken. …