Television

2007

In October 2007 Harvey was commissioned by Channel 5 to film a documentary investigating the intrinsic artistic ability of elephants. She summarises the experience below:

‘Nothing quite prepares you for the phone call that asks if you will dash off to Thailand and paint with an elephant. I have spent my creative life expecting the unexpected and this was one of those times. It seems diversity is a close companion of creativity. For a split second I considered my artistic integrity, whatever that may be, then stopped and laughed. Integrity, if you have it, is not fragile: and neither are elephants – so to Chiang Mai, Thailand.

This adventure kindly came from Barbara Lee, producer of ‘Extraordinary Animals’ for Blink TV, and was first aired on Channel 5 on January 2nd 2008. The aim of the programme was to investigate the cognitive awareness of the elephant.

It had already been established that elephants could be taught through direction and repetition to paint an image of an elephant. In Chiang Mai elephants do just this, creating souvenirs for the tourist market. The mahout who is assigned to each elephant controls the process, guiding the elephant by means of words and touch. I wanted to see what an elephant could achieve independently of the mahout’s directions. Could an elephant have a visual communication through drawing and painting? Just how expressive might that be? Would there be gestures or forms significant to the elephant? Does the individual animal have a unique visual poetry?

I worked with Hong, a six year old female elephant, who, along with sixty or so other elephants, lives at the Maetaman Elephant Camp. I did not want to make too many concessions for Hong being an elephant, and decided to treat her like a first year fine art degree student. In this sense, the artwork she attempted would be about experimenting, discovering her expressive responses to charcoal and paint.

First I needed to bond with Hong. A friend had mentioned that if you blow into an animal’s nose it would smell you and then be comfortable in your presence. Not totally convinced by this, I still thought it was worth a try. I cupped my hands around the end of Hong’s trunk, and softly blew; after what seemed like a long silence, she blew back! This was a magical moment, and I knew we were going to have fun working together. I was moved by the gentle inquisitiveness of these three tons of graceful creature and felt very safe in her company.

Hong had not encountered charcoal before, so I lashed a few large sticks together with gaffer tape to make it easier for her to hold. Elephants have a sort of thumb at the end of their trunks that allows them to pick up and grip food or objects. A metre sheet of hand-made French paper gleamed in the sunlight and Hong contemplated her first independent marks. At first she seemed unsure what would happen, and her trunk hovered for several seconds about two centimetres above the paper. A tense moment: then a thud, as contact was made with the paper. Hong then drew the charcoal slowly down towards the bottom edge of the paper to make a beautiful, elegant line. I was willing her to continue. Soon I realised she was listening to the sound of the charcoal as she made the marks.
Hong’s engagement with materials is tactile, and also appears to rely on the sensation of movement. By the end of the first day she completed several drawings on paper and had as many rests for bananas.

The following days were spent painting. It felt perfectly natural to stand at our massive easel set up by the river at the edge of the jungle, Hong with brush in trunk, as I gently commented on the compositional merits of the painting as it progressed. I mixed up paint, and she applied it to two seven-foot canvases. I could point to an area of the painting, and she would be able to apply marks to it – yet they were uniquely her brush strokes. It’s hard to define exactly what that communication was between us, as she could no more understand me speaking in English than I could speak Thai…but at the very least, we had understood and shared, silent empathy for the activity of painting. To any onlooker the scene probably looked surreal, yet I believe the compulsion to make marks is innate.

Is Hong’s drawing or painting any good? Well, we could all ask this question all of the time and not reach a definitive answer; often such judgments are only formed within a narrow backdrop of time, criteria and context. For an elephant, to have done any of this is exceptional. Does this make Hong an artist? No, probably not in the way we have come to think of one. Is she creative? Most definitely.’