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Arum, an Asian elephant, at the canvas in Bali. Photo courtesy Goldie Paley Gallery

Russian conceptual artists known for elephant art project spending spring semester at UC Berkeley
25 March 2002

Michele Rabkin, Consortium for the Arts

BERKELEY -Two conceptual Russian artists known for teaching elephants to paint and chimpanzees to use cameras are spending spring semester at the University of California, Berkeley, instructing students about animal creativity, totalitarianism and underground art.

Now residents of New York City, Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid made a name for themselves in the 1960s as young artists and dissidents at government schools in Soviet Russia. Their wide and often controversial range of work includes painting, performance, installation and advertising.

elephant painting
This painting is by Nanchok, an Asian elephant. Photo courtesy Goldie Paley Gallery

In 1998, they made headlines for creating the Asian Elephant Art and Conservation Project, recently featured on "60 Minutes." Komar and Melamid teach elephants that once worked in Thailand's logging industry to paint, then sell the paintings to raise money for the animals' care.

At UC Berkeley, the artists are in residencies sponsored by the UC Berkeley Consortium for the Arts, the Arts Research Council and the Department of Art Practice.

"The students are having a delightful, robust, even controversial adventure with the Russian team," said Mary Lovelace O'Beal, chair of art practice.

The artists are displaying their elephant paintings, giving guest lectures in Slavic Studies about totalitarianism, and will visit a biology class in April to talk about, among other things, how they taught chimps to take photographs.

In one recent class, students spent the session talking about performance art versus the "happenings" of the 1960s, freedom of expression, being a spectator compared to a participant, cloning Dali, and the changing public perceptions that affect an artist's reputation.

Komar said their art practice students have each been assigned to invent an artist – a sort of hero or alter ego with no limitations. They will develop a biography of this artist. One student is composing a whole new artistic movement. The plan is to assemble their work in a book that they hope to publish, and possibly display in New York City.

Reflecting on the Asian elephant project, Komar said he and Melamid first began working with elephants in zoos in the United States, teaching them to paint, and also worked with chimps and cameras. But after reading about the plight of elephants in Thailand, who fell on hard times after logging was banned in 1990, they were drawn to help.

The project involves draping animals in aprons and teaching them to paint wielding a brush with their trunks. The resulting artwork, which resembles abstract expressionist work, is auctioned, with a percentage of funds going toward proper care for the elephants and support for their trainers. Some elephant paintings have sold for up to $2,000.

"You have to see this project as complexly related to the now common cry that painting is dead and artists have gone on to other things," said Charles Altieri, a professor of English at UC Berkeley and director of the Consortium of the Arts. "What can we do with a dead art?

"Maybe we can make it a live form of social intervention — in this case by saving Thai elephants from destruction and actually making money for a good cause. After all, it is arguable that what killed painting was the gallery structure that created ridiculous myths and produced prices for art that only the very few could afford. It is a nice irony that what was ruined by profit motive can be restored as a kind of charity."

Modern art was based in large part on the idea that art should have no practical purpose, so artistic energies and development of materials could be appreciated for their own sake. "What better way to celebrate the demise of this modernist ideal than to develop a mode of painting that serves clear and valuable social ends, without needing any rhetoric that it improves anyone's soul," said Altieri.

He added that this elephant art raises serious questions about what is art, why people collect, and how we can link talk about the unconscious in art to the forms of gesture that elephants produce on canvas. The more seriously we are tempted to take these elephant paintings, the more ridiculous we are likely to feel speaking about deep psychological meanings in all non-figurative expressive work.

"And that I think is their (Komar's and Melamid's) ultimate point," Altieri said. "They want us to wonder if there might be something very odd and very wrong about the way that the high culture art industries go about their work. But we also have to recognize that there is also something very right about the possibility that this world is sufficiently generous to give air time to elephants and apparently mad but brilliant émigré artists."

Komar said when he and Melamid finish their residency they will return to Thailand to continue the elephant project. In November, they open a show in New York City about spirituality in art. They also are contemplating a project involving beaver architecture.

Meanwhile, at the Berkeley Art Museum's Gallery 3, more than 50 paintings done by 16 Thai elephants will be on display, along with photos and documentation, from April 10 through July 14.

A slide show lecture by the artists about their elephant work and a screening of "The People's Painting" video will take place at the Berkeley Art Museum Theater at 5:30 p.m., Thursday, April 11. The film is a Komar-Melamid project using information assembled from polls, focus groups and a road trip through Great Britain to create a picture that would produce what most people project as the painted images they most desire.

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