My Elephant Could Paint That
By John Glassie
(New York Times Magazine, November 8, 1998)
In Thailand, a slowdown in logging has left hundreds of domesticated elephants unemployed. No longer in much demand to haul teak out of the jungle, many elephants and their handlers now wander the streets of Bangkok, homeless and hungry.
The solution? Well, they could be sent to a new art school for Thai elephants that opens with a gala party and exhibition on Nov. 19. The school is designed to help Asian elephants break into a growing international market. (One female elephant at the Phoenix Zoo, named Ruby, has hauled in $500,000 from the sale of her paintings.)
The nonprofit academy is the brainchild of two Russian-born collaborative artists, Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid, who are known for conceptual projects that spoof the art world. According to Melamid, the team has recently been ''trying to find esthetic connections to the animal world'' by ''collaborating'' not only with elephants but also with chimpanzees, beavers and termites.
''Why do we think an elephant is less drawn to paint than I am, just because I'm human?'' asks Melamid. ''This is a big problem of our culture, which is very arrogant.''
He says one elephant named Sao painted her ''lyrical'' painting ''after a couple of bottles of rice whiskey, just like a human artist.'' Komar adds that elephant abstracts are less predictable than human abstracts. ''This means it is better.''
For some time, Komar and Melamid have to wanted take photographs of Moscow sites relating to their youth, but they've also worried about ending up with "banal tourist photo-pictures.'' So the team recently got a circus chimp named Mickey to operate the camera for them.
''By his nose or by his chin,'' recalls Komar, ''he always changed the focus, and the photos became, mysteriously, like Impressionism.''
Do Mickey's photographs rise to the level of art? ''If any one could explain to me what art is,'' says Melamid, ''I'd be very grateful.''