Artist Statement (from July 2003)
Topsy’s Memorial, Coney Island Museum, Brooklyn, NY
In 1955, James Agee wrote in a letter to Father Flye about “Old Bet”– one of America’s earliest circus elephants, “This is what happened [in 1824]; a matter of record: when elephants are brought among civilized men… religious people decided that she was the reincarnation of Behemoth, and shot her dead.”
Of Behemoth (and his near cousin Leviathan), God said to Job:
Behold, Behemoth, which I made as I made you…
He is the first of the works of God…
Can one take him with hooks, or pierce his nose with a snare? Lay hands on him; think of the battle; you will not do it again!… Upon earth there is not his like, a creature without fear.
God speaks with pride of Behemoth’s imperturbability (as notably compared to Job in his undone state). Behemoth resists the attacks of humans, and therefore we call him a demon? When an elephant acts without fear of humans, we indeed hold it against her as a transgression of near biblical proportions.
Elephants know they are physically stronger than humans and yet, in our presence, they nearly always hold their overwhelming power in reserve. They step lightly around us and show careful concern where they commit their weight.
What has determined their submission to captivity? Among human civilization, elephants seem the more civilized for being awed by cruelty, the more reasonable for not (unlike their human captors with the ropes, chains, and hooks) resorting to violence. In the 19th century, we dubbed them “sagacious beasts” for appearing to so readily recognize our natural authority at the top of the Great Chain of Being. We complimented them for being the “half-reasoning Elephant.”
The ankus, or elephant hook, used to prod and gouge elephants in command cues was the practical means for this contract of cooperation. And elephants, being quite thin-skinned in parts, have obeyed its message of pain. Even today, Ringling Brothers uses such a tool, describing it in court briefs with breathtaking spin as being “like reins for a horse, or a leash for a dog,”… “the shape of [its] hook … mimic[ing] the shape of the Asian elephant’s trunk.” Humans feel kindly disposed towards those elephants who cooperate, but this does not mean we are always kind to them.
If elephants learn our language fluently and use it only to agree with us, we are their friends, and they are our mascots. When elephants comply to the absolute letter– when they entertain at the circus and move their ponderous bulks into difficult poses and are benign to children, we deign to love them. When they object—to the cumulative cruelties of handlers, to the unnatural concrete jails in which they live with little stimulation, without self-determination, and often without the companionship of their own kind– and lift their trunks against us, our vengeance has been immediate. An inconvenient mood swing brings a death sentence to an elephant. A single gesture of pique within a lifetime’s desert of stoicism makes a demon of a pet.
Topsy’s execution in 1903 was not, unfortunately, an anomaly, but one among a long series documented throughout Europe and America in the 19th and 20th centuries. In India, there was a saying that “an elephant does not give up its life easily.” And they indeed prove difficult to kill. There were multiple scenarios for Topsy involving poison, a gallows, and finally the deadly electrical current. Topsy’s particular reckoning was scrupulously documented by Edison’s film company, it being not a tragedy involving an individual soul but rather the “proving” of a point in an unrelated and petty argument.
For the other unfortunates, there were cannons or shooting squads of up to 180 rounds fired sometimes over hours as the elephant bled to death. One elephant was slowly gassed with carbonic acid. Some were hung by their necks as they gradually suffocated. Building a sturdy enough gallows tended to take more than one attempt, so the poor elephant might be treated to successive dress rehearsals of her annihilation. The ones who managed to die less laboriously tended to be the victims of negligent accidents, or like “Old Bet”, felled by the lucky shot of a drunk assassin.
How can we understand an elephant? We do not collect the same information from the world through our senses as they do. Their hearing is far more acute and covers a broader range; they can talk to one another, even over great distances, without our knowing. We might only feel a subtle change in the air or a slight rumbling under our feet. Their sense of smell is broader than ours. In India, an old saying has it that elephants love sweet smells; in human burial rituals of beloved elephants, the carcass is draped in flowers. At festivals, mahouts paint flowers onto their elephants’ skin. They endure this sentimentality with equanimity (there are artists among elephants after all…)
Topsy became a symbolic figure: punished disproportionately for the escapades one drunken handler led her into and for lashing out at another handler, an abuser who fed her a lit cigarette. Like a number of unfortunate ladies in history, she was dependent on some bad men, and she paid for their trespasses with her life.
If she were human, being too large for her lot in life could have prefigured a rise to stardom, to being a diva whose outsized personality carried her to fame and fortune from small town beginnings. Topsy saw the world; she crossed an ocean. But her bigness and scenery chewing were excessively literal, excessively bestial; in the end, she was only a wild animal too big for her city crate, a problem of geometry solved by chains and manacles. One guideline held that 129 square feet was adequate for a circus elephant. Topsy was 10 feet tall and 19 feet long. Simple multiplication shows the failure of this equation.
In memorializing Topsy and making a mutoscope reel from Edison’s notorious film, I have first sought that her individual reckoning be itself witnessed by individuals, each of us in single file. She walked alone to her fate. The memorial is for Topsy, and it is for her witnesses.
Elephants with their collective far-reaching memories have less need of such a remembrance, but we humans with our collective amnesia need a little help in remembering to give Topsy and all her kin what she didn’t have then: a little consideration for her feelings.
Notes on the design:
The memorial has multiple parts: the mutoscope mechanism, the support structure, and the marquee.
The mutoscope mechanism itself is an antique; it accepts a penny to activate its hand crank and its small electric light. The viewer provides the musclepower. The act of using a mutoscope, of peering into its box to watch its small actors perform within their contained, repeating sequence references the elephant’s confinement and her repetitive days of being controlled like a puppet with the painful ankus and of being put on display.
For inside the mutoscope case, I built a new reel using digital technology and modern paper stock which plays within the antique mechanism. I painted the metal case’s exterior the deep bright pink prevalent in India, Topsy’s country of origin. Pink is often the preferred color of “little girls” and, when paired with black lace, of the boudoir and the peep show culture in which the mutoscope enjoyed a run of popularity. Recurring flower motifs refer to the burial celebrations and the sweet smell mentioned above.
The wooden post (part of the support structure) references the khedda, the post stockade used for capturing and subduing wild elephants. The chains, cables, and ropes (also of the support structure) quote from the tools of Topsy’s confinement as a circus and a Coney Island worker. Copper elements suggest the conduction of electicity and her electrocution. She reportedly wore copper-lined wooden sandals to her electrocution.
The marquee’s role in the mutoscope was to advertise for customers. Topsy’s marquee quotes from burlesque and Coney Island sources in addition to motifs from Indian art such as the lotus and the Mughal flower border. The moon at the top of the marquee refers to the famous Luna Park ride of Topsy’s time, “Trip to the Moon”. The winged elephant on the marquee is my fanciful imagining of a better afterlife for Topsy when, unfettered by gravity, she flies to a better moon, incandescent and transcendent.