“With the elephants more than any of the others, he thought as he left them—as he left behind these great beasts who recognized him when he came, who rumbled and swayed sadly—he could feel them waiting. He had thought at first it was food they were waiting for. Here they were, the last animals, locked up and ogled, who had no chance remaining of not being alone. Here they were, and what he had assumed in his smallness was that they wanted food. It was possible to be fooled by the signs of their animation, in the course of a day. But it was not food that interested them. Food was only a diversion for them, because they had little else. They were not waiting for food, but they were, in fact, waiting. He had not been wrong about that. It was obvious: all of them waited and they waited, up until their last day and their last night of sleep. They never gave up waiting, because they had nothing else to do. They waited to go back to the bright land; they waited to go home.”
–Lydia Millet, from How the Dead Dream
Traveling to over sixty zoos in the US and Europe, I filmed captive elephants exhibiting what biologists refer to as stereotypy, a behavior only seen in captive animals, which includes rhythmic rocking, head bobbing, stepping back and forth, and pacing. This compulsive movement is a coping mechanism for stress, and causes debilitating damage to the animals’ joints. I distilled my footage into a video that weaves together the elephants, caught in unending cycles of movement, bearing the weight of an unnatural existence in their small enclosures. In over 100 locations over the past five years I have installed guerilla public projections of the video, constructing photographs of each projection. Thirty Times a Minute (the resting heart rate of an elephant) explores the way animals in captivity function as symbols of persistent colonial thinking, that a striving for human domination over nature has been normalized, and that consumption masks as curiosity. The work sheds light on abnormal behaviors of captive elephants in order to bring attention to implicit values of society as a whole, particularly those that perpetuate power imbalance and tyranny of artifice. The presence of massive, intelligent, far-roaming, emotional animals such as elephants in urban zoos exemplifies contradiction and discordance, and my public projections of their image onto urban walls and out-of-context surfaces adds to the layers of incongruity. Aware of the tremendous need to protect native habitat and its residents, this project contributes to the idea that sentient beings are not meant for spectacle or display.
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