The Deep Water Horizons oil spill of 2010 was one of the world’s worst environmental disasters, one whose effects on the ecosystem of the Gulf of Mexico will be felt for decades. “Ghosts of the Gulf,” an exhibit at the Beacon Institute for Rivers and Estuaries depicting a sampling of marine creatures retrieved from the Gulf by artist and biologist Brandon Ballengée, shows a tiny piece of what’s at stake.
The colorful, intricate images of piscine forms – which were made by injecting dead specimens that he found washed up on the beach with red and blue dyes, and then scanning the fish using a high-resolution scanner – convey the intricate beauty and variety of the Gulf’s rich ecosystem. Each specimen is transparent, with a spectrallike quality that highlights the vulnerability and fragility of these organisms along with the threat of their demise by industrial contaminants.
On view at the Institute’s gallery, located on Main Street in Beacon, “Ghosts of the Gulf” is a compelling example of eco-art. In fact, Ballengée, based in New York City, is one of its most experimental practitioners. He’s an artist whose doctorate in Amphibian Biology enabled him to cross the science/art divide, and his artwork not only seeks to document but also to remedy environmental ills. One project, for example, was an attempt to breed a species of tiny frog from the Congo that is nearly extinct in the wild back to its wild state, using individuals from the pet trade and biomedical labs. As part of his doctoral work in England, he studied deformities in amphibians, publishing the results in the Journal of Experimental Zoology, which received international media attention.
“Ghosts of the Gulf” comes on the heels of several exhibitions concerning the Deep Water Horizons spill. One was a collaboration called “Collapse,” in which more than 25,000 samples, representing 370 species, taken from the Gulf’s fouled waters were displayed in glass jars arranged in an enormous pyramid (some of the jars filled with water were empty, signifying an extinction). “Collapse” was displayed at the Ronald Feldman Fine Arts Gallery in New York City.
The Beacon Institute exhibition was organized by Amy Lipton, a curator with ecoartspace, an international organization founded in California in 1997, representing a community of artists, scientists, curators, writers, nonprofits and businesses that are developing strategies to address environmental issues. Lipton, who formerly worked at galleries in New York City, has curated environmental-themed shows at Art Omi in Ghent, at the Hudson River Museum in Yonkers and at art venues in Philadelphia and Cincinnati.
Lipton has been consulting with the Beacon Institute for the past year, and organized a panel discussion last spring in which artists talked about water issues. “I’m trying to push other environmental organizations to take an interest in what artists are doing,” said the curator, who lives near Beacon. This is her first curated show for the Institute, although she has worked with Ballengée on numerous projects. “His focus is on imperiled species, often aquatic, and amphibians in particular,” along with birds, she said.
The 15-or-so specimens in the show have not been exhibited before. Lipton noted that Ballengée uses a scanner five times larger than the standard, whose high resolution allows for detailed depiction of the creature’s internal structure. The artist used a similar method in depicting deformed frogs and salamanders affected by pollution. Because the Gulf specimens of fish were collected just after the spill, up through 2012, they appear normal; scientists expect the oil contaminants to affect the morphology of the fish over time.
While eco-art is “not a mainstream art-world genre, it’s growing all the time,” said Lipton. “More and more artists are tuning into these concerns as people are becoming more aware of environmental issues, from climate change to water pollution to species decline and imperiled habitats. We do a lot of research to seek out these artists and present their work, either through exhibitions, websites, blogs… We also host educational talks and workshops and panel discussions.”
Almanac Weekly’s Lynn Woods recently spoke to artist/scientist Brandan Ballengée, who will give a talk at the Beacon Institute’s reception for “Ghosts of the Gulf” on Saturday, December 13, from 5-7 p.m.
What attracted you to the Gulf project?
I’m an artist and biologist, and from a biological standpoint, the Gulf of Mexico is one of the most important ecosystems in the US and the world. It’s the nursery for thousands of different species, and millions of people rely on protein from fish spawned in the Gulf. It’s most unfortunate for an accident of that scale to happen there.
I grew up in landlocked Ohio, and as a kid I was attracted to the exotic animals living in the Gulf and the wetlands of Louisiana. My parents took me on a Gulf tour. I caught snakes and a little alligator. It was such a memorable experience, so when I heard about the oil spill I felt a strong impetus to find out more about what was going on and see if there was some way I could help.
Where were you based at the time?
I was still doing intervening research for my degree in England, which was on amphibians as bioindicators. I was attracted to the idea of working with citizen scientists to train people for conservation research. From these experiences, people gain a stronger appreciation and see how important [the amphibians] are from an ecological standpoint…
I’m an expert on amphibians, not fish, but I felt compelled to make artwork about what was happening in the Gulf… The majority of the specimens I collected had washed up onshore following the spill in the late summer of 2010, up through 2012.