If Frogs Sicken and Die, What Will Happen to the Princes?

Almost a decade ago, scientists noticed that frogs and toads were disappearing all over the world, even in areas removed from human development. At first many suggested that frogs or toads might be an indicator species of environmental degradation. While this hypothesis could not be proved in a strict scientific sense, as it was difficult to correlate the decline of frog populations with a particular ecological variable, the concept of an indicator species serves as a powerful artistic metaphor. Jung once stated that the frog, "more than any other cold-blooded animal, anticipates man." Frogs and toads have been important throughout human history, serving as symbols of fertility, death, and transformation, as the "domestic animal of the physiologist" (Ecker), and as frequent characters in children’s tales.

If Frogs Sicken and Die, What Will Happen to the Princes? looks at the frog as an indicator of changing human interaction with the natural world. I have taken photographs of the contents of innumerable curio shops, biology classrooms, museum storerooms, and a frog jumping contest, and created digital composites by combining these images with scientific and archeological illustrations as well as a few advertisements.

While I began this piece with the intention of making an elaborate installation, the piece in its current form exists as an extensive web site, www.cmp.ucr.edu/site/exhibitions/frogs/pages. The web is an ideal form to reach a large audience and to convey more textual information than is appropriate for an installation. However, I am still convinced that looking at actual images is a powerful experience, different from that of viewing them in compressed form on screen. While the web page and installation will complement each other, I have redesigned many of the images first conceived for the installation for the web and visa versa, and see them as two different forms.

The installation as currently conceived, consists of several sections. The piece begins with a series of introductory panels with text from fables and folk tales. This is followed by two sections that are interspersed with each other. One looks at frogs’ metamorphosis in fairy tales, the other traces the use of frogs in scientific experiments. A final section examines various causes of frog extinction in relationship to popular representations of frogs. Many of these images are whimsical, contrasting the marvels of technology with environmental degradation. Additionally to provide textual commentary, above the main images, there will be a row of small prints with text, a chorus of photos of frog specimens in jars and for the concluding section, skeletons, like those stored in natural history museums.

Some of the details of the installation remain to be worked out. When I began working on the piece I was limited by less sophisticated computers and the size of affordable dye sublimation prints and tiled some of the images. At this point I would print the introductory images, and perhaps some others, larger. Most of the photos will be mounted in painted, brightly colored frames and covered with plexiglass. I may include a few cutouts to create a more dynamic installation. There will be some text in images, but most will be in the frog chorus. To provide basic background information, I also will have a couple of large textual panels, perhaps in the form of scrolls and/or xeroxed brochures. It would also be nice, but not necessary, to have a computer on-site, particularly for access to the library section of the site.

When working on the piece I was struck by the plethora of frog imagery. In particular, the images in the exhibition portray the variety of ways the frog is anthropomorphized in contemporary culture. If the frog disappears, how much else will disappear as well?

Ruth Wallen is an artist living in San Diego, California. Her artwork is dedicated to encouraging dialogue about ecological issues.

For more information visit: www.cmp.ucr.edu/site/exhibitions/frogs/pages