Saturday, 19 May 2012

Elephant No. 230: Poubellisme

One of my close friends commented last week that she particularly liked the elephants I made from utilitarian objects, or from things destined for the trash. So today I decided to make an elephant from detritus I picked up along city sidewalks.

Usually known as "junk art" or "trash art", poubellisme derives its name from the French word for garbage can, poubelle. This type of art is most often produced as a commentary on our throwaway societies, and is far less common in countries in which virtually everything is recycled and reused within an inch of its life.

Poubellisme derives from the "found art" tradition, which involves repurposing something that has a non-art function into a work of art. The most commonly cited examples of found art are Marcel Duchamp's "readymades", which include the famous Fountain (1917), consisting simply of a porcelain urinal lying on a pedestal.

Poubellisme technically involves picking up trash and using it to make art. Most artists working in this genre, however, gather materials from scrap yards as well. As I discovered myself, if you live in a relatively clean city, it's virtually impossible to rely on sidewalk detritus for your raw materials.

Trojan Horse II by Willie Bester, 1994.

For today's elephant, I walked through my own neighbourhood and part of the city's downtown, picking up any bits of metal or glass I came across. I limited myself to those two categories, because I liked the idea of working with durable, hard materials.

I discovered that I live in an incredibly clean city. The street-sweeping crews have already been through most streets, cleaning up the bits of garbage which surface following spring thaw. This meant that there wasn't much to find. The greatest quantity of metal was bottlecaps, and the greatest quantity of glass was broken beer bottles—and even those were relatively sparse. To be honest, I was shocked at how little I found. Even nearby construction sites yielded next to nothing.

It was an interesting experience gathering the material, too. In this part of the world, only weirdos are expected to pick up stuff on city sidewalks and streets—unless, of course, it's money. The lowly penny clearly doesn't count, because I found a few of those as well.

As a reasonably well-dressed person picking up bottlecaps and soda-can tabs, to say nothing of bits of broken beer bottle, I got my share of strange looks. Only one person commented, however. When I turned around to pick up a large broken metal ring, a city worker said, "I thought you'd found a horseshoe!" He thought this was very funny, so I laughed too. Sometimes it's important to present yourself as not-a-weirdo in order to continue doing bizarre things.

When I got my loot home, the first thing I did was soak it all in hot water. I was particularly careful not to stick myself with anything, because today didn't feel like the kind of day I wanted to spend in an emergency room waiting for a tetanus booster. After I'd soaked everything, I also scrubbed it and doused it in alcohol. The friend who likes repurposed junk would be proud of my efforts to destroy any lurking cooties.

This is the collection of junk I ended up with. I thought briefly about supplementing it with bits of similar stuff I have around the house, but decided that would be cheating. Instead, I'd just have to see what I could make from this.

At first I thought I should force myself to use every last bit of this, in one way or another. Then I decided I'd simply use as much as I could. The only rule was that I couldn't further alter anything by bending or cutting or breaking it.

The most obvious piece to start with was the flattened piece of rust. This looked to me like a perfect elephant-head outline, so I laid that down first.

A couple of the steel pieces looked like they'd work well to flesh out the head, so I placed those next, along with a rusty bolt for the eye area.

To finish the head, I used the remaining steel pieces, the aluminum pull tabs, and a sliver of mirror for the ear, and inserted a tiny bolt to add a bit of definition to the eye.

Other than bottle caps, that was pretty much it for all the metal bits I had, except for the large broken ring and the massive nut-and-bolt assemblage. Those both proved too large for this particular elephant, so I set them aside. This meant that I was left with bits of glass, a few scraps of broken porcelain, three pennies, and some bottle caps.

It took me a few minutes to figure out how to place these in order to make the elephant's body. It was somewhat harder than I expected, but certainly not frustrating or annoying. Once the body was more or less as good as I could get it, I added a sliver of white porcelain to the elephant's face as a tusk.

The hardest part of this activity was finding enough stuff lying on the street. Although people always comment on how clean a city this is, I was a little surprised to find out how true that is. 

Cleaning the bits of junk also took a bit of time, but wasn't hard by any means. As for putting it all together, it was relatively easy, particularly because I had that nice piece of rust to use as a starting point. From the time I started placing things, it took me about 30 minutes, so it's not time-consuming or terribly difficult.

At some point I may glue everything down, but for today I liked the fact that it's ephemeral—just like the trash from which it's made.

Elephant Lore of the Day
While looking at a database that tracks elephant populations in zoos and circuses around the world, I was surprised to come across the names of elephants residing at a garbage dump in Sri Lanka. At first I thought this was a mistake, or perhaps a strange mistranslation of an elephant sanctuary of some sort. But no, this is actually a garbage dump with elephants that are known by name.

Many garbage dumps in Sri Lanka have retinues of so-called "garbage elephants". Tempted by the easy pickings, the elephants live pretty much right at the dump, feasting on discarded fruits, vegetables, bread and sweets.

At the town of Hambantota on Sri Lanka's southeastern coast, this became a problem—albeit not really through any fault of the elephants. Following the December 2004 tsunami that had swept away most of Hambantota, the town had cleared away a large area of elephant habitat north of the old town, and had built hundreds of homes on the land.

The jungle, and the dump lying smack in the middle of it, had been home to about ten male elephants of varying ages. Because the new houses were built relatively close to the dump, the elephants had become a danger to the area's new human residents. The elephants took to wandering among the houses, occasionally raiding gardens and even kitchens.

Deluged with complaints, the Department of Wildlife Conservation decided to relocate the elephants into a protected area, 50 kilometres (30 miles) away as the crow files. What they didn't contend with was an elephant's strong homing instincts.

One of the elephants had been fitted with a tracking collar, to monitor how well it took to its new home. However, as soon as this particular elephant shook off his travel-related sedation, he made a beeline in the direction of Hambantota. Within hours, he had come up against the electric fence that ran along the boundary of the reserve. Unable to break through the 12,000-volt impediment, the elephant—nicknamed Homey—spent the next day walking up and down alongside the fence.

Discovering a section of the fence that was only electrified at certain hours, Homey broke through and moved rapidly southwest. He ran through fields and villages, and even passed another garbage dump, without breaking stride.

By the following morning, he had reached the coast, and spent the day in hiding in Bundala National Park. That night he took off at a run again, and was back at his favourite garbage dump in Hambantota by dawn the next day.

Two months after the forced relocation, there were again ten elephants at the dump at Hambantota. While authorities weren't sure how many were escaped returnees, they suspect that Homey might not have been the only one.

Homey back at the Hambantota garbage dump.

To Support Elephant Welfare
Elephant sanctuaries (this Wikipedia list allows you to click through to information
on a number of sanctuaries around the world)


  1. I enjoy all your posts and in particular the mediums that are unusual-like this one. Have you ever consider using music to portray elephants? There was a piece on CBC radio last week about a man who made studied the sounds/music of animals and birds in the wild. He said man's music has come from same, for we are mimics.
    Wow, you are at post 230! Congratulations!

  2. Thanks, Barb! That's interesting about humans being animal mimics. We always think they mimic us, but the reverse makes more sense.

    I did one music-related post in which I drew an elephant in notes on sheet music, then made it play through a music program. It's not completely awful-sounding, but my musician friends tell me that the sheet music is complicated. I'm sure they meant "virtually unplayable, except by a computer."

    It's Elephant No. 150: Music Composition if you want to hear it for a laugh: