20 December 2013

Elephants Heard

Eliza Wierwight, I noted recently, is using her artistic skills to help rescue and heal Asian elephants that are being appallingly mistreated. She created holiday elephant topiaries that she's selling at her store Patron, with all proceeds going to the Save Elephant Foundation in Thailand. So far she's raised enough money to sponsor 12 elephants, about a third of her goal of 35 elephants. As I wrote then, connecting art to a socio-political cause is a remarkable step for any artist, and it's impressive how far she's already succeeded in her goal -- in more ways than one.

Now her project is taking much larger form. The Linden Endowment for the Arts (LEA) has granted Eliza a sim for a short time (how long isn't clear), where she's built an entire installation called 35 Elephants. The sim opens on the 21st. She invited me to preview it, and since it was a preview, a few things may change by the time the sim opens, but these photos will be close. (All captions are my interpretation -- Eliza may want to correct me. Click the photos to enlarge.)

"Tomb" underneath the landing point

Entrance hall lined by negative-image guardian elephants

Scene from a chair at the back of the grassland

A sort of macabre circus

A small herd at a mud pond

A lake stained with blood

Eliza's approach is striking in several respects. Naturally, as in nearly all issue-oriented art, she has many photos of elephants, including old black-and-whites in the "circus" area. One photo includes the founder of the Save Elephant Foundation, Lek Chailert. There are a few placards and postcards as well. None of this is unusual. But Eliza hasn't simply created a poster display, and she doesn't incessantly bludgeon the viewer with images of horribly treated elephants. Sometimes, in fact, what speaks most forcefully is not an elephant at all. The bloodied lake is an example -- it's perhaps the profoundest moment in the entire work, saying so much with so little.

What most markedly distinguishes this installation from the usual efforts at political art is that Eliza has approached it as art, not simply as publicity for a cause. If you entered the installation without knowing who the artist is, you might quickly guess that it's Eliza's. Her hand is visible everywhere -- in the skill and style of the texturing, and especially in the imagery itself. There are two motifs: the huge glowing chains that line the entrance hall and reappear elsewhere; and the sharp needles that you can see surrounding the "circus" like the bars of a cage but also like spears (these too appear elsewhere). And defying the obvious, the chains never hold down the elephants themselves, nor do the spears ever pierce or directly threaten them. Like the bloodied lake, it is enough that we see them and understand their meaning.  Eliza understands the power of allusion (to be technical, metonymy). And the strange "circus" (or whatever one might call it), with its distorted checkerboard floor, has elements that say "Eliza" particularly clearly: the spinning clocks, the huge chain dangling from nowhere, the elephants standing on floating platforms, the black elephant with a red blanket on its back, the cage bars/spears. Eliza's best work always has an enigmatic quality, and we see some of it here, as well as in the allusive character of the chains and spears. Admittedly, in my view the "circus" section doesn't hold together as a whole -- which is so un-Eliza that I wonder if it's intentional. (Maybe the mishmash is a visual pun: "Jumble the Elephant"?) In any case, considered in its entirety, 35 Elephants easily strides into the narrow circle of works in Second Life that succeed both artistically and politically.

I want to add a note about LEA's role. One of its guidelines is that people can't sell things on its sims -- it's not meant to support commercial ventures. LEA somewhat pushed the limits of its non-commercialism when it provided a sim to the Portuguese Tourist Board (or something of that ilk), which installed what many of us felt was a pretty dreadful advertisement. In the case of 35 Elephants, LEA has pushed its limits in another direction, by allowing a sim to be devoted to a non-profit project encouraging donations to a cause (I believe one still has to go to Patron to purchase the topiary elephant). I haven't always agreed with LEA's decisions (of course for that matter, neither have all of its members), but in this case I think the LEA committee deserves credit, applause, and thanks.

The opening will be Saturday, 21 Dec, 11:30 AM (SLT), with a benefit by Joaquin Gustav. And donate whatever you can, whether you buy a topiary or simply give money. I think you'll agree that the elephants need you more than you need new shoes.


  1. Div, you're going to kill meeeeeeeee. A fair amount has changed in less than 24 hours in the 'macabre circus' area . Feedback I was getting was off task to what I was trying to convey. Wrangling an Immersive of this level of responsibility and opportunity at the scale I took on is not graceful to facilitate in 4 days. Little time, total auto pilot and if people are going to give the most precious gift of their time to attend, then the least I can do is push myself hard. This work weighs heavily on me.

    I'm tired and I'm not terribly articulate due to that fact.

    Oh and yes, credit to the LEA Committee for not dismissing me because I have an agenda in this works. They were quite the opposite in fact, the support I received has been phenomenal. There will be no sales whatsoever, donations will be welcome at the end of the work however :)

    Thanks Div, in case I didn't say so earlier. Appreciate your insight as well as investment of time in this.


    1. Holy crap, you had FOUR DAYS?? Most people couldn't achieve half as much in 20 days! I already knew that you're one of the hardest-working artists and designers in SL, but given the circumstances, you've really topped yourself. I look forward to seeing how you've developed that section of the build.

    2. MMmmhmmn four. I so tired !

    3. Div you need to get a Facebook thingy on this page !

    4. I don't know why the Facebook thingy won't show up. It used to. I re-added the code. Beats me! Well, at least Blogger offers a FB Share thingy. Not the same thing but it'll do. Make all your friends read it and give it a Google +1. /me blows a raspberry at Facebook.

  2. My hats off to you and all your outstanding efforts, Eliza. These very precious creatures are so very fortunate to have you in their corner. Wonderful write up, Div!

  3. So now the sim is open, and in the meantime Eliza has made *numerous* changes. What I called a "macabre circus" is now a crass entertainment district and really came together. There are a few other changes as well. (Eliza's a work-a-holic!)

  4. 4 days, it is what it is. Certainly not an artistic opus by any means, however it has predominantly met the goal, so it's a success. End of story. I'd lament my angst over so many aspects, that's just artistic narcissism. My ego demands certain things of me, sad really. I'm terribly frustrated by aspects of that work. In the context of things, my frustrations pale to the significance of the experience of others in the front lines putting it out there for Elephants. sort of amusing that I'd even allow myself to have them. This thing has raised awareness significantly, it has touched people profoundly. It's also done the practical, good old cash. We're just over USD 2000 now (including sales of my commercial work) , suspect that was worth a few days effort yes. Sleepy time now and again Div thanks for the part you played in the overall success of this.

    Hugs Emma xxx