‘Extinction isn’t political.’ AcA exhibit puts Lafayette face-to-face with climate change

Artist Brandon Ballengée
Artist Brandon Ballengée's technically impressive exhibition implicates viewers in the environmental issues it tackles. Photo by Travis Gauthier

In 2004, Hurricane Ivan shirred off part of an underwater mountain range about 12 miles southeast of the mouth of the Mississippi River. Mudslides are fairly routine on the uneven, shifting sea floor of the Gulf. But this time the slide took an aging oil platform with it. A dozen wellheads ripped open in the underwater avalanche. The open mouths of these pipes spilled oil into the Gulf for the next 15 years, the single most extended offshore oil spill in history. The owner of the rig, Taylor Energy, dropped out of the energy business in 2008 without successfully capping the flow, which in 2019 was finally, albeit partially, contained.

It still leaks, though, about 5% of it escaping every day out into the Gulf. Underwater footage of the spill is surreal: Little brown globules of oil fall upward in a flurry toward the surface like an uncanny, upside-down rainstorm. It’s this video image, paired with the recorded sound of a gentle rain shower, that greets visitors at artist/scientist Brandon Ballengée’s new large-scale exhibit at the Acadiana Center for the Arts.

Emotionally charged and technically impressive, the exhibition, called “The Age of Loneliness,” implicates viewers in the environmental issues it tackles. That it does so in a tense political climate, and without trading pleasure for profundity, is as astonishing as the creatures he’s captured on paper and preserved in glass jars throughout the space.

The exhibit opens at AcA Oct.9 during ArtWalk, and visitors can interact with it before they even set foot inside the building. With the help of some girl scouts, Ballengée planted a row of native pollinator plants in the thin strip of dirt between the glass window-front of the gallery, where he also hung flat white panels of fabric lit with black light to attract insects. “Love Motel for Insects,” it’s playfully called.

Despite his long list of accolades — including both a Guggenheim and a Smithsonian fellowship — Ballengée himself is as approachable as his artwork. Likely traceable to his background in both biology and community engagement, he has both a scientist’s curiosity and a personable, down-to-earth demeanor. A series of paintings done with crude oil hang about the space, depicting Gulf fish species in decline or already extinct. Ballengée, in his signature cabby hat, is quick to smile when asked about the learning curve of painting with tar balls.

“It was horrible. The first ones I did with Deepwater Horizon oil? They never dried,” he laughs. “They were awful.”

The end result, however, is arresting, as are the aquatic animal portraits in “Ghosts of the Gulf,” which required quite different but similarly involved technical processes. Chemically cleared and stained, Ballengée’s images of these preserved specimens appear fragile and backlit like otherworldly panes of stained glass.

Ballengée’s artistic skill makes viewing this collection a pleasure, even with a subject as grim — and, here in Acadiana, politically polarized — as environmental destruction.

“I've been trying to get this installation in Louisiana for 10 years,” he says. “It's great that the AcA is willing to take that risk. Because extinction isn’t political.”

When it comes to divisive issues in Louisiana, however, the oil industry’s impact on the environment tops the list of subjects most likely to instigate a brawl at the family crawfish boil. According to a recent Pew study, only 10 percent of Republican and Republican-leaning independents were deeply concerned with addressing climate change, whereas about half of Democrats ranked it as a top personal cause.

Here in Acadiana, legislators often push to decrease the oil and gas industry’s accountability for environmental damage. This summer, for instance, Lafayette Rep. Jean-Paul Coussan ushered a bill into law that allows industrial facilities to confidentially disclose environmental violations to the Louisiana Department of Environmental Quality, as well as receive reduced fines, for up to two years. This law makes it much harder for the public to get information about environmental threats like the ongoing Taylor spill. Coussan has argued the bill will make companies more forthcoming to state regulators. After some tweaks, it passed the Legislature by a landslide this year and was signed into law by Gov. John Bel Edwards.

Or, like the spill that followed last month’s Hurricane Ida, which Gov. Edwards said came from an old pipeline owned by the Houston-based oil and gas exploration company, Talos Energy.

Ballengée hopes his exhibit might make striking up a conversation on this hot-button topic a little easier for folks. 

“I think art is a really good strategy,” he says. “Because you connect to it at an individual level. You have an emotional response. And that, hopefully, transcends politics. The point isn’t to point a finger, but to create room for discussion.”

There’s some evidence, at least nationally, to suggest that folks are starting to talk about the environment. According to the same study that uncovered our nation’s deep partisan divide on the topic, about one in four U.S. adults reported that a friend or family member encouraged them in the past year to get involved with addressing climate change. And generationally, the political divide is shrinking, with younger Republicans pushing their party to take climate change more seriously.

It can be hard to start a conversation on such a vast subject, though, because it’s hard to imagine such a frightening future. But if there’s one thing “Art of Loneliness” excels at, it’s providing a kind of emotional preview to how it might feel to live in a world without the diverse creatures that bring us such wonder now. Hanging on the red walls of the final room in the installation are framed prints from old publications with illustrations of now-extinct fauna. Ballengée has physically cut their pictures out, leaving animal-shaped holes through which you can see the red wall behind.

In one, a 1965 article from a Costa Rican science journal, a biologist raves about “an extraordinary new toad” whose “most startling coloration” inspired in him feelings of “disbelief and suspicion that someone had dipped the examples in enamel paint.” On the opposite page, nothing but two toad-shaped holes are left. It’s hard not to feel a pang of envy for the scientist, and a sense of loss for yourself.

In the center of the gallery, taxidermied animals cast gazes over viewers and onto their ancestors’ red-shaped absences on the nearby wall. For this installation, the only thing standing between the species still with us and the ones that aren’t, quite literally, is us.