Animal art: Is it genius or total hokum? Elephants: Two New York artists with a talent for showmanship plan to market paintings by Thailand's beasts of burden.


BANGKOK, Thailand -- Aboard a wooden rice barge chugging up Bangkok's Chao Praya River, Alex Melamid, a New York-based Russian artist, solemnly informs the assembled guests that modern painting has reached an impasse.

Art has nothing left to say, he says, and so: "We must now employ other species to do our work." He sketches out plans for an art school for elephants and concludes, "I would like to see elephant art everywhere."

Next, an earnest young New Yorker billed as a specialist on "inter-species art" lauds the use by elephants' of "tertiary color somewhat like Gauguin" and their "complex use of negative space." She compares their work to the "haphazard spontaneity of the Abstract Expressionists," and concludes soberly: "We hope that elephant art will reinvigorate Western painting."

It was the post-modern launch last month of the Thai Elephant Art Project, a questionable promise of synergy between New York conceptual artists and one of man's oldest beasts of burden, the elephas maximus.

Against a backdrop of photogenic tropical poverty -- balmy breeze, weathered shacks and swimming children -- filmed by a British Broadcasting Corp. crew fresh from Indonesian riots the week before, a Russian emigre painter, an art historian and a Bangkok-based American elephant expert explained that they will market paintings by Thailand's "most talented" elephants and channel the profits toward local animal conservation.

Is it total hokum or fund-raising genius?

Some might say it hardly matters if it helps ease the plight of the Thai elephant. Ever since the ban on teak logging in the late 1980s, Thailand's 3,800 domesticated elephants, like blue-collar laborers in a post-industrial world, have struggled to find work in the service sector. But there are only so many hill-tribe trekking tours, circuses and sanctuaries to accommodate them.

Large numbers are still involved in illegal logging, forced to work at night in tough jungle terrain to avoid detection, and often force-fed amphetamines to improve efficiency. Others become nervous wrecks begging for food in pollution-clogged Bangkok.

OK, it's sad. But can elephants paint?

The aforementioned conceptual-art duo has a reputation for placing its tongue deep inside its cheek. Alex Melamid and Vitaly Komar, who met in an anatomy drawing class at a Moscow morgue, rose to fame with humorous parodies of socialist realism -- Young Pioneers blowing their horn in Stalin's ear, Lenin on his knees grubbing for mushrooms -- all in a camp academic style with nods to antiquity and Renaissance Italy.

Established in New York since the late 1970s, they enjoy a success born of an eclectic fusion of Soviet academic training, savvy showmanship and a polymath's grab bag of stylistic references.

More often than not, however, their versatility has been in the service of satire. When, for example, they use their famous names to commodify paintings by elephants, are they mocking a gullible public or lending their cynicism to a good cause? Usually, the multiple levels of packaging, awareness-raising and irony obscure the answer. "Everything the critic might say had been anticipated," wrote the New York art critic Arthur Danto about the duo. "The critic was part of the spoof."

In the case of Elephant Art, the spoof has an additional twist. Elephants actually can paint, sort of.

Fourteen years ago an elephant lumbered onto the stage of the Johnny Carson Show, cradled a house-painting brush in its trunk and slapped some paint onto canvas. For one watching elephant trainer from the Toledo, Ohio, zoo, it was an entrepreneurial epiphany. He fashioned special brushes for his special elephant, Renee, and perfected the technique. The fad mutated and spread to about 30 zoos across the country. Celebrity elephant artists sold their work for up to $1,000 apiece.

Komar and Melamid journeyed to Toledo and painted with the elephant. Today, on board the barge, Melamid elaborates on the experience. "I fell in love with that elephant in Ohio. I'm serious. It was really sexual."

Ironically, the elephant expert, Richard Lair, who finally injects some sobriety into the theatrics, is himself a former painter and a product of '60s-style California dreaming. Since relocating to Thailand more than 10 years ago, Lair, 57, has established himself as a leading authority on the Asian elephant.

As both "Professor Elephant" (as the Thai media have dubbed him) and a student of Abstract Expressionism, he was a natural )) facilitator for the work of the New York duo.

Still, in a later interview in his Bangkok apartment, Lair is a bit less exuberant about the artistic talents of the local elephants. In Thailand, he says, "I don't think the elephants like painting that much. They haven't taken to it like the American ones. It's probably because they haven't experienced the same sensory deprivation as caged animals."

Very little is known, Lair says, about elephant vision or intelligence. Though they have excellent memories -- the log haulers can store up to 200 command words -- no one knows whether they see in color; whether they are near- or far-sighted; whether they understand that art is ultimately representational -- either of a concrete reality, an inchoate mental image or an emotional state -- and not just good exercise for the trunk.

One elephant, however, understands a key element of Abstract Expressionism: It developed a more relaxed trunk stroke after imbibing a quart of rice whiskey.

Given how little is known about the elephant's creative process, it's a rash judgment to say they can contribute to, let alone, "reinvigorate" Western painting.

If contemporary art is everything and nothing, as Alex Melamid and entourage might say, why not bring on Blind Art to help the blind, Toddler Art to help disadvantaged children, Retarded Art to help the mentally handicapped? In fact, why help the elephant when there are numerous deficient human species, from death-row inmates to heroin junkies, who could profit from the sale of their arbitrary patterns scribbled onto canvas?

Lair, in his U.N. monograph "Gone Astray: The Care and Management of Asian Elephants in Domesticity," provides some case for aiming this convoluted charity drive toward the animal kingdom:

"With the elephant's value as a work animal nearly at an end, man has clearly broken a contract -- albeit an unwritten contract -- and left a historical debt unpaid. As the last few remnants of millions of elephants to have worked for man, today's 16,000 [Asian] elephants clearly deserve, in the jargon of the age into which they have been thrust, a 'soft landing.' "

Though it may not Save the Elephant or say much about contemporary art, the "soft landing" devised by Komar and Melamid makes a critical point: Since mankind has exploited countless wildlife species for commercial use, it has responsibility for their well-being even when their services are no longer required. And there are far worse ways to spend early retirement than oil painting in a jungle clearing.

Pub Date: 7/28/98

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