When Elephants Paint: The Quest of Two Russian Artists to Save the Elephants of Thailand

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9780060955960: When Elephants Paint: The Quest of Two Russian Artists to Save the Elephants of Thailand

For centuries elephants in Thailand have been revered as a national symbol, worshiped as living gods and employed as beasts of burden in the nation's thriving timber industry. But when logging was banned in Thailand in 1990, these noble animals fell on hard times. Reduced to performing tricks for tourists by day and illegal heavy labor by night, Thailand's elephants were exhausted, malnourished, and dying in alarming numbers.

Hearing of their plight, a pair of unlikely heroes came to the rescue, Wildly eccentric Russian emigre artists Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid devised a brilliant scheme: to create the world's first quadruped occupational retraining program-a network of art schools for unemployed elephants. Taking a cue from elephant trainers in a number of American zoos, Komar and Melamid taught the animals to hold brushes in their trunks and apply paint to canvas. And the results were astonishing: Not only did the elephants' paintings closely resemble the expansive gestural work of such Abstract Expressionist artists as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Franz Kline, but the pachyderm painters also began to develop clearly distinct regional styles-lyrical and expressive in the northern Thai school, subtle and atmospheric in the east, dynamic and angst ridden in the central school.

Sanctioned by the World Wildlife Fund, the Asian Elephant Art and Conservation Project has been a remarkable success; paintings by some of the most talented elephant artists have been auctioned at Christie's for thousands of dollars, generating funds to provide proper care for the elephants and support for their trainers.

When Elephants Paint follows Komar and Melamid and their eclectic entourage through Thailand's lush jungles and steaming cities, describing the odd encounters and creative cajoling that helped turn this seemingly whimsical idea into a concrete, beneficial reality. Illustrated with more than 100 photographs, including actual elephant paintings, this riotously funny and provocative book offers a valuable lesson in wildlife conservation and startling revelations about the nature of art itself.

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Review:

Once revered as semidivine beings and collaborators in the hard work of transporting goods and materials, Thailand's elephants have fallen on hard times. With the destruction of their forested habitats, a consequent nationwide ban on hardwood logging, and the decline of traditional agriculture in the rapidly urbanizing country, their numbers have declined from tens of thousands just a decade ago to only a few thousand today. Many of the surviving elephants have been put to work in traveling circuses or used for black-market labor, subject to overwork and all manner of abuse.

Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, Russian expatriates who have been working together for more than 30 years, have a knack, writes art curator Mia Fineman, for "transforming the solemn rituals of high art into high comedy." It was with the utmost seriousness, however, that the two, on reading of the elephants' plight, traveled to Thailand and established the Thai Elephant Art School, through whose offices elephants create pop-art masterpieces with palette, brush, and trunk. (Elephants, it seems, have a well-known gift for the visual arts and, in the Thai case, adore the work of Vasily Kandinsky.) Sold to collectors on the world market, pachyderm-painted pieces generated $75,000 at a single early auction, the proceeds of which were used to establish and maintain sanctuaries throughout Thailand.

Illustrated with elephantine artwork and more than 100 photographs documenting Komar and Melamid's project, this book makes a wonderfully offbeat gift, and one of a very good cause. --Gregory McNamee

About the Author:

Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid, collaborators on Painting by Numbers, left the former Soviet Union twenty years ago for the New York art world. Their work is among the most consistently provocative art currently being produced and is in the collection of every major contemporary art museum in the world.

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