In an elegant Manhattan apartment, champagne flows and sitar music fills the air while the artist Andres Serrano, creator of Piss Christ, schmoozes with the party's host, a noted collector of Renaissance art. Most of the attention at this soirée, however, is focused on three abstract paintings: a work in gunmetal blue that evokes the charged energy of lightning, a smaller canvas whose bold strokes suggest a horse leaping from negative space, and a dark composition called Forest, which features angry green bands and is signed by an artist named Bird.
What's so attractive about Bird and his colleagues? Well, they're Asian elephants, and the flurry of interest their work has aroused is deliciously apt, considering that all of New York was recently abuzz over an attempt by Mayor Rudolph Giuliani to force the Brooklyn Museum to remove a portrait of the Virgin Mary decorated with elephant dung. Plus, connoisseurs will soon be to able purchase originals for themselves. On March 21, a consignment of pachyderm paintings will be auctioned at Christie's to raise funds for the Asian Elephant Art and Conservation Project, a group founded in 1998 by Alex Melamid and Vitaly Komar, Russian-born conceptual artists who have satirized everything from Soviet Realism to Western kitsch. Although they are notorious pranksters who delight in subverting art's many pretensions, Melamid and Komar have loved elephants since they were children. Thus their decision to spearhead the project, which is designed to assist the 3,500 Asian elephants and their mahouts, or owners, who were left without work after logging was radically curtailed in Thailand in 1990.
Melamid and Komar have established Elephant Art Schools in Kerala, southern India; Bali, Indonesia; and Lampang and Ayutthaya, Thailand, where pachyderms spend their afternoons pondering the blank surface and then splattering it—and anything else within 20 yards—with paint. The Jackson Pollockesque results earned more than $50,000 at their first showing in Bangkok. And if all goes well, the Christie's auction could net another $250,000 to lavish on conservation efforts—a prospect that both gratifies Melamid and Komar, and confirms their views on the enterprise of art. "I know plenty of unemployed humans who are masters of nothing and have turned to art," says Melamid. "Elephants aren't as smart as humans. But I'm not sure you have to be smart to paint."