when elephants paint and play music

komar and melamid

During 2001 there was an exhibition of paintings done by ... elephants, at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney and Australian Centre for Contemporary Art, Melbourne. The Asian Elephant Art and Conservation Project had been established by Komar and Melamid, two New York-based Russian conceptual artists. lt was under their watchful eyes

that elephants learned to paint. The first elephant they taught was Renee, at the Toledo Zoo in Ohio. In the States elephants have been painting successfully for two decades now. Komar and Melamid then travelled to Asia and started elephant art projects in Thailand and later in India and Indonesia.

The story of the elephant in Asia is a grim one. Not so long ago the Asian elephant ranged in thirteen countries of the Indian subcontinent. In Thailand there were once one hundred thousand elephants, many of whom were so-called timber elephants used in the logging industry. These elephants had been trained from early age by one (human) person, an elephant handler or mahout, and then carried on a life-long working relationship and friendship with this one person (mahout and elephant having approximately the same lifespan). Nowadays there are just a few thousand elephants left, most of them no longer used in human enterprise due to massive deforestation and a ban on logging. The elephants

often get neglected, start wandering around the cities, perish in traffic or fall into manholes. Or they continue to be worked and overworked in illegal logging or in badly managed tourist venues. Elephants may step on landmines in countries like Vietnam, Burma and Cambodia. Or they come into conflict with people's settlements which, due to

human population growth, need more and more land: the elephants, it is felt, are encroaching on that land. Male elephants are subjected to illegal hunting in the interest of the ivory trade. This has resulted in skewed gender ratios.

In Lampang, Northern Thailand, the Thai Elephant Conservation Center was opened. lt also became the world's first elephant art academy. And it is here that elephants were introduced to yet another form of art: music.

What kind of elephants take to painting? Ones that are still relatively young. The MCA exhibition in Sydney showed work of many different elephants. One of these was Ganesh who, born in the wild in Kerala (India) in 1994, painted sharp strokes against a backwash of soft colour. We were told that Arum, born in Bali in 1973, usually had breakfast first and then painted for two hours straight. The most famous Indonesian pachyderm was Ramona, a Sumatran elephant, who painted mainly naked stripes. The colours and shapes (stripes, circles etcetera) that each elephant used did not appear to be a random affair, but were a matter of individual preference. Moreover each individual showed a consistent pattern in his or her paintings. But they all tended to favour the abstract over the representational style.

Some of the forty-six elephants living at the Center in Lampang have discovered another art form: music. The Thai Elephant Orchestra is the creation of two Americans, Richard Lair who has worked with Asian elephants in Thailand for twenty-three years, and Dave Soldier, a New York-based musician and neuroscientist with a taste for the avantgarde.

They provided six elephants of the Center, aged seven to eighteen, with a variety of specially-fashioned percussion and wind instruments. They made sure that the instruments fitted Thai culture and Thai music, conscious as they were of the elephants' normal cultural ambience. There exists even a CD of this Thai elephant orchestra.1 Those familiar with

Thai instruments will recognise the slit drums, the gong, the bow bass, the xylophone-like 'renats', as well as the thundersheet. The only difference is that the elephant versions are a bit sturdier.

Lair and Soldier showed the elephants how to make the sounds, they (or the mahouts) cued them to start and to stop, and then let them play as they wished. Dave Soldier, skeptical at first, now says: 'I am confident that the elephants understand the relationship between their actions and the sounds they produce. They don't operate the instruments randomly, but aim for where the sound is best. I have no doubt they are improvising-and composing'.

Ancient Romans and Asian mahouts already had noted elephants' ability to distinguish melodies. The elephant orchestra members improvise distinct metres and melodic lines, and vary and repeat them. They have a strong sense of rhythm. They flap their ears to the beat, swish their tails and rock back and forth.

The above-mentioned CD consists of 12 tracks of elephant-played music, one track with elephant natural sound recordings (mainly trumpeting sounds), four tracks where the mahouts and elephants play together and two tracks of only humans performing. The tracks show great variety, but could be characterised as meditative, haunting or as 'temple' music.

What does it mean when elephants paint or play a musical instrument? lt means that in this market-dominated world they can pay for their own upkeep. The proceeds from the paintings and the CD go to the elephant conservation and elephant welfare programs conducted by the Thai Elephant Conservation Center. Elephants are saving themselves from extinction by demonstrating how human-like they really are. By showing they can do things like painting and music-making they tell us how much they are worth saving. I confess I am feeling somewhat uneasy about both projects. Do we only appreciate animals when and if they can do what we can do? Isn't it precisely their otherness, the way they are different from us, which makes them interesting? Aren't they precious in and of themselves?

Nevertheless elephants do seem to be natural candidates for music-making. Their hearing is much keener than their sight and they naturally employ a vast range of vocalisations, some even below our range of registry.

Still-what sort of meaning does music or a painting carry for the elephants themselves? Is it sentiment which is expressed? Or a sense of beauty? But what is beautiful to an elephant?

Hard questions to answer. Paraphrasing Richard Lair, 'Just as there are a lot of things elephants wouldn 't understand about our music or painting, I am sure there are· things we will never understand about theirs.

notes: 

1. CD: Thai Elephant Orchestra (Dave Soldier & Richard Lair, Mulatta Records 2000). All music recorded January 10 - 14 2000, at The Thai Elephant Conservation Center, Lampang, Thailand.

Dr Barbara Noske is currently a Research Fellow at the Research Institute for Humanities and Social Sciences, University of Sydney and is author of Beyond Boundaries: Humans and Animals, Black Rose Books, Montreal/New York, 1997.