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Malamp: The Occurrence of Deformities in Amphibians, Brandon Ballengée

Nicola Triscott and Miranda Pope, Editors
The Arts Catalyst; and Yorkshire Sculpture Park, London, UK, 2010
72pp., illus col. Paper, $US26.00
ISBN: 978-0-9534546-7-9.

Reviewed by Mike Leggett
University of Technology Sydney


The collaborations between an artist, the public, and several scientists working in the field of amphibians make this book a vivid and surprisingly candid contribution to the campaigns against human ecological and biological carelessness.

The book is essentially a catalogue to an exhibition and, like all good catalogues, grows limbs into the worlds of each of the contributors: the scientists, the artist, the curators, the charity; together with a vivid essay from the international renowned writer on art and activism, Lucy R. Lippard. In this context the art object is liminal, except for the book itself, which provides full–page (A4), high quality reproductions of the items made for framing by the artist.

The modesty of his practice emphasises motivation. As a trained biologist and educator in the 1990s, he became an environmental activist focused on one of the so-called 'biological canaries', the amphibian; this lead to the Malformed Amphibian Project (MALAMP). The widely noted reduction at that time in amphibian populations was considered to be the work of humans, specifically through the pollution of the atmosphere and waterways.

What makes this book particularly fascinating is that using scientific method, it transpired this was not the case; well, not directly, since all good science concludes that more research is now needed. The evidence produced, however, indicated it was frog parasites and their predators that were more likely being affected by chemical pollutants and increased UV light levels.
Stanley K. Sessions has been working in this area for a similar period as fellow American Ballengée, and they agreed to work alongside one another to both reveal and illuminate the issues. The artist was both expert lab assistant and interlocutor; the scientist more experienced with tools and method. Their work and its conclusions appeared in the peer-reviewed Journal of Experimental Biology and makes fascinating reading, though the elements of vivisection in the account, where induced deformities are introduced into the experiments, carry some concern.
Brandon Ballengée's observations and participation in the investigations are recorded extensively with camera and pen. These, together with material gathered during field trips in the US, Central America, and Europe using make-shift laboratories established to facilitate public participation, form the basis of the exhibitions and the book itself.

The collectable art objects, the large Iris prints on watercolour paper, emerge from the imaging of specimens cleared and stained to show the multi-limb patterning in toads, frogs, and tadpoles. They become abstracted, even fantastical, anthropomorphic representations. Like collectable shrunken heads, the appeal is less to an aesthetic sense and more to the effect on the intellect of the sight of distortion, morbidity, and decay. My concern is that in the context of an art gallery, the aestheticism of the images from the early research process are liable to obscure, to detract from the reality of the source of the concern, and the complexity of the issues revealed. The strategy clearly is first to intrigue, then to elucidate.

The key contribution of this approach to artist and scientist working together is summarised in a cited quote from Pavel Büchler: “Modern society undoubtedly needs creativity, critical imagination, and resistance more than it needs works of art. It needs artists with their ways of doing things more than it needs the things that they make. It needs them for what they are rather than what they do”.

It is rewarding to come across a convincing account of a scientist who in working together with an artist is so vividly responding to the needs of our modern society.

Last Updated 1 September 2011

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