“That’s a damn talented elephant …”

June 27, 2012 § Leave a comment

Untitled drawing by Siri, pencil on paper

In the early 1980s an elephant trainer from Syracuse Zoo noticed that one of his trainees, an elephant named Siri, was playing with a stick, apparently doodling in the dust. The trainer, named David Gucwa, began to experiment: replacing the stick with a pencil and providing Siri with sheets of paper. It is important to understand that Gucwa was fairly rigorous in his approach to this experiment. He did not pull the paper away when the drawing looked ‘finished’ – and Siri was not rewarded when making the drawings. David Gucwa went on to co-write a book with the journalist James Ehmann entitled To Whom It May Concern. A book that David Rothenberg describes as successful because “it does not presume conclusions about the validity of elephant art”.

The drawing above is one of Siri’s creations. It clearly shows a determined approach to mark making. I have recently begun working on a copy of this drawing which I will post below when it is complete. It has been an interesting, intense experience trying to will myself into the Umwelt that might have created it. This is barely an imagining of such a state, perhaps more of a shamanistic encounter through the medium of the drawing. One of the hardest aspects, from the point of view of technique, has been to recreate the delicacy of pressure that has led to the differentials in weight across the lines.

Joel Witkin, professor of art at Syracuse University was one of the first to see Siri’s drawings.

“These drawings are very lyrical, very, very beautiful. They are so positive and affirmative and tense, the energy is so compact and controlled, it’s just incredible … I can’t get most of my students to fill a page like this.” After learning the identity of the artist Witkin said: “Our egos as human beings have prevented us for too long from watching out for the possibility of artistic expression in other beings.”

In 1984 they sent the drawings to the noted abstract expressionist painter Willem de Kooning; they received a letter in reply from his wife, Elaine de Kooning:

When Mr. de Kooning and I received your package, before we read your letter, we looked at the drawings and were very impressed by them. We felt they had a kind of flair and decisiveness and originality. Needless to say we were dumbfounded when we read that they were made by an elephant.

Mr. de Kooning said “That’s a damned talented elephant. I look forward to following his career”

Komar and Melamid, the Russian emigres artist provocateurs that (until recently) worked as a duo with a collaborative practice have taken a somewhat different stance on elephant art. The Asian Elephant Art and Conservation Project employs elephants in an atelier environment where they are taught to produce work that is then sold on the art market. The elephants work with their mahouts who indicate the marks that should be made using touch signals. Owing to the demise of the South Asian logging industry – in which many of these elephants were previously employed – many of these elephants are out of work and roaming the streets uncared for. The Asian Elephant Art and Conservation Project is clearly of benefit to the elephants and, on the face of it would appear to be a win-win situation: all the bananas you can eat in return for a couple of hours very light work a day. One might almost imagine this as a creative industry – similar in nature to those that have sprung up in the wake of the demise of heavy industry in northern England.

The question is: how far does this ‘tutored’ approach depart from the primal, sensual act of drawing as ‘play’? If it is play – making a deliberate mark. It is clear from Siri’s spontaneous drawing that the elephant has deliberated in the making of these lines – has been absorbed in the responsive process that occurs in manual drawing … the unique, looping feedback of affect that exists for the short period of time during the making of a drawing – between the eye and the brain and the hand (or the trunk).

Perhaps it is going too far to suggest that we might see something calligraphic in these markings, but I think that they bear comparison with some of the first probing gestures that we observe in the heavily overlaid markings of the earliest human art.

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