Exhibition Project
Becoming Animal, Becoming Human
Animal Perspectives
Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid

The New York-based Russian art duo, Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, who now work independently, taught domesticated elephants to paint. This multi-year project, which began in 1995 and has been concluded, used the resulting pictures to finance an elephant protection project they have been running since then in Thailand. For centuries, elephants have been used to haul wood; following a logging prohibition, they lost their “jobs” and therefore became useless to humans. The art project provided an alternative source of income for the keepers of these endangered elephants and thus for the elephants themselves. What began as a satirical commentary on the art market quickly developed into a mutually profitable business.

Even without being told to do so, elephants enjoy drawing lines in the ground with sticks. The duo took advantage of this fondness in its very first collaboration with an elephant, training Renée in the Toledo Zoo in Ohio to paint. In 1998, Komar and Melamid traveled to Thailand for the first time, opened an “Elephant Art Academy” in Lampang and established the Asian Elephant Art and Conservation Project. The founding of additional painting schools for elephants in other Asiatic companies followed. Komar and Melamid soon trained only the Mahouts who were then responsible for instructing their animals. It proved difficult, however, to teach the Mahouts, who had had no previous contact with modern painting, to appreciate the concept of abstract art. Similar to their animal partners, the aesthetic discourse and the economic rules of the art business were completely foreign to them. With the parallel and methodologically comparable instruction of human and animal participants, under the intellectual authorship of artists socialized in western culture, the project raised questions about prevailing conceptions of art and satirized traditional notions of inspiration, intentionality, self-expression and genius. Moreover, the duo’s approach also avoided conventional notions of animals’ capacity for acting and their wealth of expression when assigned a supposedly genuine human duty. The discussion of “culture” in animals, which remains quite controversial, first arose as Melamid declared, “Each elephant has an individual style, each elephant trunk style is as unique as handwriting.” Like a commentary on the results of natural science research by Kinji Imanshi, Frans de Waal and other ethologists, the status of authors was conferred upon the animals with a wink. Thus, in the accompanying publications, for example, various regional schools were described and elephant painters introduced with detailed curriculum vitae, techniques, style characteristics and preferred colors. It must be borne in mind, however, that the elephants’ becoming human takes place, if at all, only in the reception.

Jessica Ullrich

Ecollaboration with the Elephant Renée, Toledo Zoo, Ohio, July 1995

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