Jennifer Gampell
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Bangkok 10100 Thailand
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Wall Street Journal, July 15, 1998

These Artists Work for Peanuts

By Jennifer Gampell

PATTAYA, THAILAND--Boon Sawng just wasn't in a very artistic mood. He kept picking up the strange piece of wood with hair on one end and trying to scrape it across the blank sheet of paper at his feet. But actually he thought it was more fun to drop the thing on the ground or give it to his friend Vit. But Vit was insistent. "Jam wai, jam wai,"--"remember" in Thai--he murmur supportively. The artist manqué gazed woefully about and thought of all the things he'd rather do than painting. Like taking a long drink of water from the hose. Or scratching his hind leg. Or eating a banana.

Boon Sawng's inability to master rudimentary painting techniques on this overcast early June morning meant that for now there are still only three regional styles of elephant art in Thailand: Lampang, Phuket, and Ayuthaya. Which is three more than there were a few weeks ago before Russian artist Alex Melamid-one half of the pair of collaborative artists Komar & Melamid-arrived on the scene to introduce a bold new concept in art to Thailand's dwindling pachyderm population.

The Russian-born team emigrated to the US in 1978 and have since achieved fame for their artistic satires of such wildly disparate cultural icons as Soviet Realism and the American obsession with opinion polls. In 1995 the two expanded their creative collaboration to include Renee, an African elephant in an Ohio zoo.

Actually American zoo elephants have been slapping acrylic on canvases since the early 1980s. Today about 30 painting pachyderms across the country are selling their abstractions for between $25 and $15,000 per piece. Ruby, an elephantine superstar in Phoenix, generates over $100,000 a year for her zoo.

On the other side of the world, the life of the domestic elephant in Thailand is far less salubrious. The 3,000 or so that remain (down from more than 11,000 only 30 years ago) have lost their native jungle habitat to deforestation, and their primary means of support to the collapse of the country's timber industry. Though it's now illegal for them to beg for money in Bangkok, the stoic creatures can still be found lumbering along the edges of the city's congested and polluted roadways.

Upon learning of their plight, Komar & Melamid formed the Thailand Elephant Art Project to offer unemployed elephants and their mahouts a less stressful and more lucrative occupation. Boon Sawng's bad art day notwithstanding, Mr. Melamid is extremely pleased with the outcome. "Asian elephants paint better than American ones," said the puckish 53 year-old. "One even drank rice whiskey, which makes her a traditional painter."

Elephant artists, at least in the early stages of their careers, still need assistance from their two-legged collaborators. Humans teach the elephants how to hold the brush, decide which colors to use, and usually determine when a chef d'oeuvre is finished. In Thailand, young Asian elephants (four to 10 years old) enjoy painting more than the older ones, and females display more innate talent than males.

With tongue only partly in cheek, Mr. Melamid sees painting as a means of revealing the "inner elephant" and calls the elephants and mahouts "noble savages" whose creativity is changing the meaning of abstract art. Elephants' multicolored forays into the realm of abstract expressionism have been dubbed Post-Humanism and Dumboism by western art critics.

But do they merit being taken seriously as art? According to New York art historian Mia Fineman, the idea that only humans can make art is an artificial barrier erected by the art world to keep out other species that also are prone to aesthetic behavior. Bower birds decorate their nests, termites build air-conditioned towers out of their feces. And Asian elephants pick up stones or sticks and doodle on the ground. "They are motivated by a driving force greater than functionality," explains Ms. Fineman. "And this is called art."

The irrepressible Mr. Melamid agrees: "Culture is universal. Why should it belong to humans any more than to elephants? When I turned 50 I understood how bad of an artist I was. The only way to expand art is to go beyond human capabilities and that's why we now employ other species."

Just as art critic Clement Greenberg sponsored the abstract expressionism of Willem de Kooning and Jackson Pollack over 40 years ago, so Ms. Fineman is attempting to create a fin de siècle movement out of works by Jo-Jo, Phitsamai, and Phum Phuang. She has already defined three regional styles: Lampang (lyrical, expressive, forceful and frenetic brush stroke, "conscious use of negative space"); Phuket (straight strokes, no thin brushes, primal, elemental, "Gaugin-like use of tertiary colors"); Ayuthaya (darker colors, hard-edged, dramatic, "not curvilinear like Lampang"). "By the standards we use to judge abstract expressionism, these works are really good," says Ms. Fineman. "Even better than Pollack or de Kooning."

Whether this nascent Thai art movement will help to reinvigorate the Western painting tradition or generate some much-needed income for the artists remains to be seen. Messrs. Komar and Melamid say some celebrity-studded fundraisers in the U.S., Israel and Germany are in the pipeline, with a portion of the profits earmarked for the Thai Elephant Art Project.

Copyright 1998 Wall Street Journal