To make his art, Brandon Ballengee burned images from irreplaceable antique prints.
The original images are forever gone, much like the extinct birds and animals they represent in the Louisiana Art & Science Museum's "Frameworks of Absence: Brandon Ballengee."
Ballengee's message, however, wouldn't have been as powerful had he destroyed copies. His process may seem harsh, but its point is well made in an installation mixing art and biodiversity to shed stark awareness on species that no longer exist worldwide.
A ghostly space represents the great auk in an 1881 chromolithograph (a unique process for making multi-color prints), and the blueback antelope in a lithograph from 1893. Even John James Audubon's colored stone lithograph of the Florida black wolf wasn't safe from Ballengee's cutting tools.
But the subject of Audubon's work also wasn't safe from the ever-changing ecosystem. It no longer exists in the world, and though there are other prints in Audubon's numbered Florida black wolf series, the wolf is only a silhouette in Ballengee's show.
"Brandon is both a biologist and an artist," said Elizabeth Weinstein, LASM's chief curator and assistant director for interpretation. "The title of his installation comes from his research of extinct species, arranged from the species to today. And you'll notice that as we get closer to today, there are more species."
And thrown into the mix are mounted specimens loaned by the LSU Museum of Natural Science and the Louisiana State Arthropod Museum representing animals that are close to becoming extinct.
Included are the red wolf, the monarch butterfly and the hawksbill sea turtle, some of whom have been placed on the endangered species list.
The two museums also loaned animal bones and skulls, which are piled on an altar of sorts fronting a looped artistic video documentation of Ballengee's cremation process.
Again, only images — not actual animals — are burned. The small urns fill shelves in one section of the installation, all perfectly aligned and clinically labeled and numbered.
"But these images are from the actual antique prints," Weinstein said. "This makes Brandon's statement that much more powerful."
Ballengee will talk about the diversity of Earth's species and the importance of environmental stewardship at the Louisiana Art & Science Museum's "Art After Hours" program at 5:30 p.m. May 16.
Ballengee is well versed in his subject, holding a doctorate's degree in transdisciplinary art and biology from the University of Plymouth, England, in collaboration with the Hochschule für Gestaltung, Zürich, Switzerland. He is now a postdoctoral research associate at the LSU Museum of Natural Science, where he is studying the impact of the 2010 oil spill on fish species in the Gulf of Mexico.
"The Earth is occupied by an immeasurable number of living organisms. This enormous variety of living plants, animals and microbes physically and chemically unite the atmosphere, geosphere, and hydrosphere to create one environmental system or biosphere," Ballengee said. "Millions of species, including humans, thrive within the biosphere; each organism plays an important role. Thus, the diversity of life forms, known as biodiversity, is essential to human well-being.
Yet, biodiversity has suffered over the course of history.
"Many species have been lost due to natural occurrences. More recently, human activity has critically impacted biodiversity," Ballengee said. "Some species have been lost entirely due to human actions that have negatively affected the environment. When an organism or species is terminated, it is called extinction."
"This installation stands as both a monument to what has been lost to extinction and what may be lost if decisive action is not taken," Weinstein said.
Frameworks of Absence: Brandon Ballengee
WHEN: 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday; 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Sunday. Through Oct. 27.
WHERE: Louisiana Art & Science Museum, 100 S. River Road.
ADMISSION/INFO: $9; $7.50 ages 3-12 and age 65 and older. (225) 344-5272 or lasm.org
ALSO: Brandon Ballengee will talk at 5:30 p.m. May 16. Admission is $10.