The Nature of Art
Brandon Ballengée’s artistic practice and scientific research share a single purpose—to generate understanding and awareness of endangered species.
From these waters are drawn the raw materials for scientific exploration and creative endeavor.
Brandon Ballengée: I've always wanted to do art and biology since I was a kid.
Brandon Ballengée holds an unusual Ph.D. It's in Transdisciplinary Art and Science. His work centers generally on endangered species, but with a particular focus.
Ballengée: When I was in high school, the first stories started to come out about the epic decline of amphibians and I got really captivated by that. When you're doing the science work, you try to distance yourself as much as possible when you're in the field or in the lab and you're just collecting data. Of course, that's not the way human beings are. We're not objective. That's one part of us but there's a whole other side. And this is the subjective side, the emotional side, the side that needs to express something about what it's like to go to a wetland and find 90% of the frogs with these terminal deformities. It's overwhelmingly sad. And so how do you explain that, not just through the analytic way of science, but how can you tell that story through art?
Ballengée's ongoing project, Reliquaries, does just that. It's a series of enlarged, stained images of terminally deformed field specimens.
Ballengée: They're scaled in a way so that the amphibian is roughly the size of a human toddler. I don't want to create monsters. I don't want to generate fear, but actually empathy.
There's kind of a sense of beauty in the way that I treat the organism through this process called “clearing and staining.” That's actually a chemical process which I use to study the development from the science standpoint. But the aesthetic is so compelling. They're also exhibited in these kind of very loaded formats, so lighting is very important. So you're walking into a room that's fairly dim, and the portraits really kind of glow.
Another of his scientifically-sourced art projects, Frameworks of Absence, is a decade-long exploration of one of the most daunting realities we humans face.
Ballengée: We have a really difficult time understanding or perceiving death, let alone this idea of an entire group of organisms that are completely gone. How we do wrap our head around extinction? I'm not sure we're hardwired to. From the artistic standpoint, I wanted to try to sort out how you could visually give form to something that is a negative, to something that is an absence.
And so, I would get these old guides that would have a depiction of a passenger pigeon. And then I would sit and ink them out. But then that dark form was just that—it was a form, it was a presence. It was not a negative; it was something new.
And then I was inspired by Robert Rauschenberg who erased a de Kooning drawing so I thought, “Well, let me try that.” So I would go around and erase these different extinct species from old prints or whatnot. But what was left was this kind of trace. It looked very ghostly, but it was still a presence.
And then one day, I just cut one of the depictions from an old book. And I held it up to the light and suddenly, there it was. I'd framed absence, and it was that simple all along. This was the way that you could kind of give form to this anti-form.
What I do is, I cut the image out of the historic artifacts. I then burn the depictions and then put the depictions in these funerary urns. And then when people end up with one of the Frameworks of Absence, they're asked to scatter the ashes so they have their own kind of ceremony. By doing that, that action transforms you. It makes you think about what's at stake.
When I exhibit these, the back piecing is literally glass. So what you see is that absence the shadows on the wall cast. The first time, I showed ten of these and a viewer came in. And she walked very quickly, she kind of made a quick sweep around the room. She got to probably image number seven, and then I went to greet her. But she was going so fast, seeing the exhibition. By the time I got to her, she'd turned around, and we made eye contact and we were really close, and I just saw that she was bawling, and she was just weeping. And then I thought, “Wow, when does that happen at a contemporary art exhibition?”
But such a departure from the norm is not altogether unusual for Ballengée, whose work has always challenged convention.
Ballengée: In the beginning, when I was showing work in New York, I did get a lot of criticism where people were saying, “Oh, that's science, it's not really art.” Or, “Oh, that's activism, it's not really art.” But what you're seeing now—all over the world, really, I think—is this growing situation where people are realizing that disciplinary boundaries are very limiting because, you know, these situations, the problems are complex, and we realize that one discipline can't solve them.
The one thing that I seriously desire with all these works is that people don't walk away feeling hopeless, but they walk away feeling engaged. “Wow, we need to do something, and what can we do?”
And this artist / scientist / activist continues to do all he can to help remind us that, just as we contribute to the earth's problems, so, too, can we become a part of the solutions, for all our children.