Thursday, 7:13pm
25 March 2010

Ghostly amphibians

Deviant toads and art-science collisions in London

Some tiny, jewel-like translucent toadlets are making a brief appearance at the Royal Institution, in an exhibition called ‘The Case of the Deviant Toad’, writes Sally Jeffery.

The deviancy, it turns out, is in their development rather than a matter of louche amphibian behaviour. Look more carefully, and you are edging towards an unsettling Chapman brothers world of multiple limbs and other dislocations between expectation and reality. These are real specimens, prepared by a process known as clearing and staining, which renders the soft parts of the specimen transparent.

The display (in the atrium, below) is a collaboration by New Yorker Brandon Ballengée, described as artist, activist and ecological researcher, with Stanley K. Sessions, professor of biology at Hartwick College, NY, and Yorkshire naturalist Richard Sunter. Their focus is biodiversity and ecological change. The art part consists of large digital prints, and Ballengée’s small and deliberately muddy paintings, but it’s the little ghostly amphibians in their lab dishes that fix themselves in the mind.

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Top, below and bottom: Cleared and stained multi-limbed Pacific Tree frogs from Aptos, California.

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The display is unlabelled. Perhaps the idea is to transform scientific objects into art objects, by not letting prior knowledge colour the viewer’s response. But it will certainly annoy scientists.

Below: Cannibalistic toad tadpoles filmed at the BioArt laboratory, Yorkshire Sculpture Park.

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The exhibition is organised by The Arts Catalyst in association with Yorkshire Sculpture Park, and is accompanied by an illustrated book, The Occurrence of Deformities in Amphibians (spread, below). The Royal Institution is merely the exhibition venue (it has its own splendid permanent display of scientific apparatus), but it may be unhappy to learn that in the book’s introduction, amphibians are referred to as a species – a hazard of cross-cultural publishing, perhaps.

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Incidentally, the toad images also appear in a new book from Thames & Hudson, Art + Science Now: How scientific research and technological innovation are becoming key to 21st-century aesthetics, by Stephen Wilson. Maybe the toadlets’ hour has come.

The Case of the Deviant Toad’, Royal Institution, Albemarle Street, London W1, 9am–11pm Monday to Friday, until 31 March 2010.

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Eye, the international review of graphic design, is a quarterly journal you can read like a magazine and collect like a book. It’s available from all good design bookshops and at the online Eye shop, where you can order subscriptions, single issues and classic collections of themed back issues.

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