“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.

What Colour is the Chameleon?

May 30, 2012 § Leave a comment

What Colour is the Chameleon?

Preliminary study (vector drawing) for painting. The painting will measure approximately 50cm x 50cm – the chameleon will thus appear at life size. 

I recently made a visit to the Alfred Denny Museum with Professor Tim Birkhead, honorable curator, and the photographer Karl Hurst.

The Alfred Denny Museum is a small, Victorian-style museum housed within the Animal and Plant Sciences Department of Sheffield University. There are a number of traditional glass cases within, organised in such a way that they offer representatives from each of the major phyla of animal taxonomy. While I was there I encountered two chameleon specimens. The first, a suspiciously glossy taxidermy specimen, was brightly but somewhat artificially coloured. The other – considerably more ‘fleshy’ – was mounted in a glass box filled with formaldehyde. This chameleon was a rather unappealing grey. Attached to the glass was a neat, handwritten – but quite prosaic – label. It was clear, easy to read, and said: chameleon.

By coincidence I had been reading about the chameleon in a book entitled Ciferae by Tom Tyler. Ciferae is a bold and creative investigation into the intellectual parameters of the question of the animal; in Steve Baker’s words it offers “an audacious account of what it is not to be human”. In the first chapter Tyler quotes from philosopher J.L Austin’s Sense and Sensibilia. The seventh ‘lecture’ in Sense and Sensibilia concerns the complex set of concepts denoted by the word real. One of the many uses to which the word is put is as an ‘adjuster word’: a linguistic device that moderates the innumerable – and largely unforeseeable – demands of the world upon language:

We have the word “pig” for instance, and a fairly clear idea which animals, among those we … commonly encounter, are and are not so called. But one day we come across a new kind of animal, which looks and behaves very much as pigs do, but not quite as pigs do; it is somehow different.

Given this encounter we have a choice of potential responses: stay silent, invent an entirely new word for this pig-like creature or, more probably, say that these animals are like pigs but, if pressed, perhaps go on to admit that they are not true pigs .. or real pigs …

So where does this lead in terms of the question formulated in the title of this post? What is the true or real colour of the chameleon? The following quote is extracted from Bernhard Grzimek’s Animal Life Encyclopedia:

Colour change in chameleons  … is not so pronounced as is often thought … Although chameleons can often match themselves to their surroundings … their colouration is not necessarily related to that of the background. The motivational state of the animal determines its colour to a considerably greater extent.

It is clear that neither of the two chameleons that I encountered within the Alfred Denny Museum exhibit the true or real colour of the chameleon. One has been bleached to a deathly grey by the chemical used to preserve it from decay, the other looks fresher but its static, lacquered, stiffness makes it equally removed from reality. If such a thing as the real colour of a chameleon exists at all – and if it does it will vary wildly, depending on the emotional state of the animal – it exists within a dynamic flux. This could single out the chameleon as a unique, bright, and rather beautiful index – or pointer – towards something meaningful about our naming of things; about the contingent nature of human language – and the limitations of language – when it comes to our relationship with the natural world.

Animal Artworlds – ‘it could be anything’

May 18, 2012 § 2 Comments

This is the first of an occasional series of extracts from texts, critical readings, or personal reflections based on ideas arising from the field of cultural research that is now referred to as the ‘post-humanities’.

Animal Artworlds 

The following quote is taken from Survival of the Beautiful: Art, Science and Evolution by David Rothenburg. It contains a very interesting appropriation of the institutional theory of art by the biologist Richard Prum:

“… art is a communication that evolves by co-evolution between the observed and the observer, a performance and an audience, through sensory evaluation. Basically there are an extreme number of biotic artworlds that we are observing from the outside: a nightingale artworld, a bowerbird artworld, a mocking bird artworld.”

Prum has derived the term artworld from Arthur Danto’s definition of art, as originally set forth in his 1964 essay The Artworld:

To see something as art requires something the eye cannot descry—an atmosphere of artistic theory, a knowledge of the history of art: an artworld.
This definition has subsequently been refined by George Dickie and can be summed up in the following definition from his Aesthetics: An Introduction:
A work of art in the classificatory sense is 1) an artifact 2) upon which some person or persons acting on behalf of a certain social institution (the artworld) has conferred the status of candidate for appreciation.
The institutional theory of art was originally based, in Danto’s formulation, on a study of Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes*. It states that traditionally aesthetic considerations of the nature of an object (its ‘beauty’) are secondary to the context in which it is received. In other words anything – the most arbitrary of objects – can be art if the artworld (the institution) says it is art.
Prum’s somewhat radical development of this idea is that arbitrary biological characteristics (we might use the classic instance of the peacock’s tail**) have, for millions of years, been enhanced via sexual selection. Thus the biological acceptance of a ‘beautiful characteristic’ reflects the evolutionary state of the aesthetics governing reception of the arbitrary within these (animal) artworlds.
In other words our human artworlds effectively mimic those in nature and evolve, in response to our artists, in order to receive their art. In relatively recent art history we might therefore see a progression of ‘peacock’s tails’: impressionism … abstraction … the found object … minimalism  … pop art … relational aesthetics …

Prum’s radical (but to my mind very appealing) implication is that the cultural conditions that have provoked the concept behind institutional theory might actually be nothing new:

“We gotta get over ourselves. We are not the centre of life or the universe. Our culture is not the centre of culture. There is a seamless interaction between coevolutionary theory and aesthetics.”

* Although, in a 2003 essay entitled On Painting by Art and Language it is pointed out that Marcel Duchamp’s In Advance of the Broken Arm – a completely unmodified snow shovel – would be a clearer example of a work that requires institutional theory to ‘see it as a work of art’.

** In Darwin’s view, anything that could be expected to have some adaptive feature could be explained easily with his theory of natural selection. In On the Origin of Species, Darwin had admitted that to use natural selection to explain something as complicated as a human eye, “with all its inimitable contrivances for adjusting the focus to different distances, for admitting different amounts of light, and for the correction of spherical and chromatic aberration” might at first appear “absurd in the highest possible degree,” but nevertheless, if “numerous gradations from a perfect and complex eye to one very imperfect and simple, each grade being useful to its possessor, can be shown to exist”, then it seemed quite possible to account for within his theory.

More difficult for Darwin were highly evolved and complicated features that conveyed apparently no adaptive advantage to the organism. Writing to colleague Asa Gray in 1860, Darwin commented that he remembered well a “time when the thought of the eye made me cold all over, but I have got over this stage of the complaint, & now small trifling particulars of structure often make me very uncomfortable. The sight of a feather in a peacock’s tail, whenever I gaze at it, makes me sick!” Why should a bird like the peacock develop such an elaborate tail, which seemed at best to be a hindrance in its “struggle for existence”? To answer the question, Darwin had introduced in the Origin the theory of sexual selection, which outlined how different characteristics could be selected for if they conveyed a reproductive advantage to the individual. In this theory, male animals in particular showed heritable features acquired by sexual selection, such as “weapons” with which to fight over females with other males, or beautiful plumage with which to woo the female animals. Much of The Descent of Man is devoted to providing evidence for sexual selection in nature, which he also ties in to the development of aesthetic instincts in human beings, as well as the differences in coloration between the human races.

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