GIVE ENOUGH monkeys a typewriter and they might channel Shakespeare, but infinity is a long time to wait.
To see and own paintings by an elephant, however, will take just a matter of days. On Wednesday, the Berkeley Art Museum hosts “Komar and Melamid’s Asian Elephant Art and Conservation Project.”
Brush-wielding elephants have been around for at least 20 years. The first known commercially successful artist is Ruby, a Phoenix Zoo inhabitant who is said to have resorted to painting as a way to ward off boredom.
Artistic pursuits for elephants might seem like a circus act, but the purpose is quite serious: The works by Asian elephants are a means of survival.
When Thailand outlawed logging in 1989, it halted a relentless scourge of deforestation. The ban also left scores of endangered Asian elephants and mahouds (trainers) without a livelihood.
Their limited alternatives included circuses, tourism and being part of a private collections, until 1998 when Vitaly Komar and Alex Melamid opened the first elephant academy of art in Lamphang, Thailand.
The Russian-born artists have built a reputation for challenging the very notions of what makes art. In 1995, they introduced a paintbrush to Renee, an African elephant residing in the Toledo Zoo. Now three academies exist, with the other two in India and Bali, Indonesia.
Elephants “always had such instinctive gestures,” says Komar, who with his longtime collaborator have been teaching at UC Berkeley this past semester. “What we just did is give them brush and color.”
He cites a historian who almost 2,000 years ago described seeing an elephant making “strange lines” on the ground with a piece of wood or stone. “He said these lines remind him of some kind of message or alphabet.”
If one of the tenets of abstract art is unbridled Id, then an animal who takes up a brush has a purity that can never be attained by a human being conscious of aesthetic and commercial expectations, explains Komar.
“Elephant is a big exception from the art market, they’re really innocent, they’re not corrupted,” he insists. “They really paint because they enjoy it. — The way they paint the brush strokes, the composition, very fresh, very surprising.”
Not that one can force an elephant to paint. And not that all elephants even like to paint. “We never force them to paint because they’re very strong,” Komar says matter-of-factly.
Elephant artistry provokes reactions ranging from curiosity to amusement to outrage. Yet as the artists point out, inventiveness is not restricted to human beings. “The nature of creation is a much more common thing in the animal kingdom,” says Komar, who brings up the example of beaver dams as a “fantastic style of architecture.”
The New York-based artists will be featured in a gallery talk at Thursday’s opening reception. An auction will also be conducted of all 54 paintings, which successful bidders pick up when the exhibit closes July 14.
In the environment-conscious Bay Area, the issues of deforestation and endangered species will likely be a draw — if there need to be reasons other than abstract elephantism. The museum’s focus, however, is on the conceptual.
“The Berkeley Art Museum has a history of showing challenging, conceptual art,” says associate curator Alla Efimova, who adds that the show also “touches on abstract expressionism and we have a lot of abstract expressionism.” So while visitors can peruse its permanent collection of works by Jackson Pollock, Willem de Kooning and John Mitchell, upstairs will feature artists such as Juthanam, Lukkang, Ganesh and Bird.
The focus, however, is on Komar, 59, and Melamid, 58. “The artists have been very provocative in all contexts, no matter where they lived and where they worked, and it’s meant to do that here,” Efimova says. “It’s meant to work on a lot of levels and be very ironic. There are no right or wrong responses.”
Concept aside, patrons are likely to be as intrigued — if not more intrigued — in the process. The artists’ talk and screening shows the proboscis technique, and the relationship between the mahouds and their elephants. Unlike the African breed, Komar says, Asian elephants have been domesticated for 300 years, and a language of signals has evolved between the two species.
The process often involves the mahoud bringing the nontoxic and washable paint and changing the papers when the elephantine inspiration process is done. While some scientists have theorized that Asian elephants are colorblind, the artists conducted an experiment in which they painted bananas in red, blue, green and yellow (the yellow was to make sure the olfactory-sensitive creatures didn’t go by smell). Inevitably, the greens and yellows were the first to go, and the last were the blues and reds. The artists perceived that as evidence of color perception, and the elephants that chose randomly were judged to be less discerning.
The Russian-born artists have worked with other creatures from the animal kingdom; they taught a monkey from the Moscow circus to take photographs. Other projects they’re contemplating include a look at the towers in which Australian termites live as well as bringing human-cut 2-by-4 boards to beavers to see what the rodents will create.
Likely, though, these critters won’t inspire the same spiritual and artistic connection that the elephant has.
“From my point of view,” Komar says, “maybe some of the elephants represent an incarnation of the soul of the artist who was not successful in his or her life.”