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Komar and Melamid

Asian Elephant Art and Conservation Project

April 10, 2002 - July 24, 2002

A young pupil learns about his artistic forebear Marcel Duchamp. From When Elephants Paint by Komar and Melamid.

Elephant art auction through July 14, 2002
Elephant Art Auction

"Elephants are much better than human abstract artists. They're innocent and not corrupted by the art market. The best ones can concentrate all their intellectual power and aesthetic preferences on a single piece." - Vitaly Komar

For centuries elephants in Thailand have been revered as a national symbol, worshipped as living gods, and employed as beasts of burden in the nation's thriving timber industry. But when logging was banned in 1990, the 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 the elephants' plight, Vitaly Komar and Alexander Melamid came to the rescue. The Moscow-born, New York-based artists devised a brilliant scheme to create the world's first quadruped occupational retraining program - a network of art schools for unemployed elephants. Elephants in the United States had been painting successfully for two decades, including Ruby, from the Phoenix Zoo, whose works at one time generated more than $100,000 a year. Komar and Melamid introduced this concept to Asia in 1996 and two years later founded the Asian Elephant Art and Conservation Project (AEACP), a nonprofit foundation.

In November 1998, the artists opened the world's first elephant art academy, in Lampang, Thailand. To celebrate this event, the Hilton International Hotel in Bangkok hosted the AEACP's premiere exhibition of elephant art, where Komar and Melamid presented an original elephant painting to Thailand's Princess Galyani. In the following years AEACP established footholds in India and Bali.

The AEACP has been a remarkable success; paintings by some of the most talented elephant artists have been included in the 1999 Venice Biennale and in 2000 were auctioned at Christie's for thousands of dollars, generating funds to provide proper care for the elephants and support for their trainers.

Art or Philanthropy?

The exhibition on view in Gallery 3 presents over fifty paintings by sixteen accomplished Asian elephants along with photographs and documentation about the project.

Besides displaying clearly distinct regional and individual styles, the elephants' paintings closely resemble the expansive gestural work of such Abstract Expressionist artists as Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning, and Franz Kline. This is where the project turns from an innocent charity into a wry, astute commentary on art: AEACP turns out to be a wolf in sheep's clothing.

In the introduction to the history of AEACP, When Elephants Paint (HarperCollins, 2000), Dave Eggers refers to the project as "conceptually philanthropic art maybe, or philanthropically conceptual art." The best conceptual art demands that artistic activity become an inquiry into the nature of art itself. Any result or embodiment is simply a demonstration of the artist's idea. In the case of AEACP, the elephant paintings (raised to the status of art through institutional acceptance) are, after all, just paintings, while Komar and Melamid's philanthropic project is the Art. The idea behind the project is laden with challenging questions: Who determines the value of art? Does intention matter in the creative process? What is the role of art institutions in pronouncing judgments? Who do we imagine artists to be? and Why do we have such faith in art as good and capable of bringing salvation?

While Komar and Melamid's ultimate medium is the art-world system itself, their tool is irony. In its etymological sense, irony (Greek eironeia) means dissimulation, pretense, especially with reference to the pretended ignorance practiced by Socrates as a means of confuting an adversary. The artists' use of irony lies in assuming a pose of ignorance by simulating a virtuous, even sentimental philanthropic enterprise while undermining ideological foundations of the very institutions that allow them to realize the project.

About the Artists

Vitaly Komar (b. 1943) and Alexander Melamid (b. 1945) both attended the Moscow Art School and the Stroganov Institute of Art and Design, Moscow. They began their collaborative work in 1965. Their first international exhibition was at Ronald Feldman Fine Arts, New York, in 1976. In 1978, Komar and Melamid became United States residents. Their work is in the collection of every major contemporary art museum in the world. Notorious dissidents before they left the Soviet Union, Komar and Melamid are still responsible for the most consistently provocative art currently being produced.

Alla Efimova
Associate Curator