Elephant Parade 28.07.11

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The elephants on London's streets have more to do with private wealth than public art, says James Bridle

Elephants feel like a bit of a London obsession, beginning with the African bull that took up residence in the Tower in 1255, through to 2006's visit from the Sultan's Elephant. But unlike that giant automaton, which served only to turn the world upside down and invite the population to marvel in the streets, the Elephant Parade is an ostentatious display of wealth and poor taste; charity in the form of conspicuous consumption.

Situated around the capital are 260 plastic elephants, each hand-painted by such art-world luminaries as Graeme Le Saux and HRH Princess Michael of Kent. Other names (Cartier, Swarovski) and the locations of the elephants (inside Westfield and Selfridges, and concentrated in Mayfair, Belgravia and the City) hint at the true nature of the endeavour.

These parades started with cows in Zurich in 1998 and have since been repeated endlessly in over 100 cities worldwide. They have not been free from protest: in 2000, the New York City Cow Parade rejected David Lynch's submission: a headless, disembowelled model with "Eat My Fear" daubed in blood down its flank. In 2004, the Militant Graffiti Artists of Stockholm kidnapped a cow and, in a video featuring balaclavas and power drills, threatened to execute it unless the statues were declared non-art.

In its most depressing guise yet, this summer Hull will host "Larkin With Toads", a "celebration" of the poet's life in the form of one-metre-high fibreglass amphibians sponsored by local businesses. Toads were chosen because of their appearance in his much-studied poems Toads (1955) and Toads Revisited (1962), apparently in ignorance of their actual content. The poems figure toads as the embodiments of the worst aspects of life ("Why should I let the toad work / Squat on my Life"), and of the poet himself. The suggestion by the organisers of Larkin25 that the poet would be "quietly amused" to be commemorated in this way would seem more a confirmation of his low opinion of humanity than any kind of appreciation of his work.

There are several arguments against the parade, beyond the Swedish assertion that it is simply unoriginal and "bad art". The positioning of the elephants as charitable objects when they are in fact inaccessible to the general public is insulting enough; the money raised from the parade comes from an auction for the rich. The elephants are not to scale because they are intended for some banker's garden or oligarch's playroom, and are merely paraded before the proles to display their purchasers' beneficence. Worse still, they are contemptuous of the urban environment: on its website, the Elephant Parade states that "each decorated by a different artist or celebrity, the elephants brighten and beautify the city, enhancing every park, street corner and building they grace".

London's citizens may still support the Asian elephant, and Mark Shand's Elephant Family charity is no doubt an excellent way to do so. But when we allow the privileged to turn charity into public philanthropy and fawn over the gaudy signifiers of their wealth as if they were indeed some kind of art, we devalue our environment, true charity and ourselves.




James Bridle

quotes story

In 2004, the Militant Graffiti Artists of Stockholm kidnapped a cow and, in a video featuring balaclavas and power drills, threatened to execute it unless the statues weer declared non-art

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