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DFA 25, Promethéus, Brandon Ballengée. Unique scanner photographic print of cleared and stained multi-limbed Pacific Treefrog
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Deformed toad artist hopes to win public sympathy for amphibians

Laura Sevier

30th March, 2010

The mystery of legless and multi-limbed frogs and toads has captivated artist and ecological researcher Brandon Ballengée for over a decade. Here's how he blends science with art

They may look like eerie creatures from a sci-fi movie but these images and specimens of deformed frogs and toads with missing or extra limbs are the products of scientific research.

New York artist, activist and ecological researcher Brandon Ballengée says his work ‘attemts to blur the already ambiguous boundaries between environmental art and ecological research.'

For more than a decade, a central focus of his biological research and subject of his artworks has been the declines and potential causes of deformities among amphibian populations, known as the Malamp project.

Ballengée has studied amphibians globally, collaborating with numerous researchers and hundreds of participating members of the pubic.

'The Case of the Deviant Toad', his first London solo exhibition, was the artistic result of his 'eco-actions' and study of UK toad populations commissioned by The Arts Catalyst and Yorkshire Sculpture Park.

Mystery of the deformed toads

Collaborating with Professor Stan Sessions an amphibian specialist and professor of biology at Hartwick College, in Oneonta, New York, the artist focused on the study of a population of toads with high levels of deformities that he discovered near to Yorkshire Sculpture Park.

Ballengée worked for over two years to study possible causes including parasites, predators or chemical pollution. The findings of the project are published in the Journal of Experimental Zoology Part B: Molecular and Developmental Evolution (or read the BBC report here).

During 2007 and 2008, he led numerous public field-trips and workshops at the park, in 2008 setting up a public laboratory to continue the study - nearly 800 people participated. By being 'open', the labs facilitate 'an increase in local environmental consciousness and create important platforms for public discussion,' says Ballengée.

Conversations range from 'local knowledge of natural history to matters of ecology and to even larger philosophical debates about the ethical treatment of non-human life forms.'

Amphibian art

'The Case of the Deviant Toad' represents the artistic leg of the project. The exhibition, held at the Royal Institution in London, was a spotlight on amphibian deformity, with its high-resolution scanner photos and preserved specimens of deformed toads.

What's striking about the artworks is not only how colourful, vibrant and otherwordly they appear.

Ballengée developed a chemical process that stains the bones and cartilage with colours and leaves the skin transparent. The stained amphibians are then scanned at very high resolution and turned into large-scale watercolour prints scaled up to the size of a human toddler, 'attempting to evoke empathy rather than fear', says the artist.

Resembling X-rays, the disturbing yet beautiful images are unique, intended to recall the individuality of the life of each frog.

Each one is named (by the poet KuyDelair) after an ancient character from Greek mythology based on the individual frog's  deformed anatomy.

By contrast, the amphibian specimens from his sculptural series 'Styx' seem tiny but are similarly colourful, having been cleared, stained and precisely illuminated in glass dishes and displayed on large dark structures.

'Viewed up close they resemble gems or the stained-glass windows found in some cathedrals,' says Ballengée. 'There is something familiar about them, enchanting but terrible.'

 

Laura Sevier is the Ecologist's Green Living Editor

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