Friday, 20 April 2012

Grotesque Elephant of the Bastille

While researching the giant creatures produced by Royal de Luxe I recalled seeing the 'Sultan's Elephant' which I witnessed from the balcony of the Institute of Contemporary Arts in May 2006.

At the time one of the artists in my company expressed his distaste for such events and for the cost involved. I did not share his view and consider these gigantic mobile objects a delightful popular spectacle. No harm in that.

The Royal de Luxe will be back in Liverpool in the UK shortly. It was Liverpool's Militant Tendency, you may recall, who once attempted to bring down the governments of the day. Radical Liverpool has always brought dissidence and vigour to the British political scene. Liverpool has, of course, also given us forms of popular music that have an undruing appeal across the world and offer a message of joy, love, harmony and delight in life.

The amazing and wonderful creations produced by Royal de Luxe are also an opportunity to contemplate our sense of proportion and its relation to human ingenuity and creative play. But, like Swift's classic, they are also meditations on the role of power and control, people and machines, in history, and in our own times.

The popularity of Jonathan Swift's Gulliver's Travels (1726) as a book and as a film is enduring and influential in high and low cultures.

Fixed gigantic grotesque architecture has had a less happy fate. Puppets, at least, are more fragile and momentary.

Ribart's planned Champs Elysee Elephant - 1758

Further research has uncovered the gigantic model elephant structure that used to dominate the Place de la Bastille in Paris, France. It was originally conceived by Napoloen and the first stage completed in 1814.

The elephant structure was portrayed by Victor Hugo in Les Misérables (1862)

It was falling into ruins; every season the plaster which detached itself from its sides formed hideous wounds upon it. 'The aediles' as the expression ran in elegant dialect, had forgotten it ever since 1814. There it stood in its corner, melancholy, sick, crumbling, surrounded by a rotten palisade, soiled continually by drunken coachmen; cracks meandered athwart its belly, a lath projected from its tail, tall grass flourished between its legs; and, as the level of the place had been rising all around it for a space of thirty years, by that slow and continuous movement which insensibly elevates the soil of large towns, it stood in a hollow, and it looked as though the ground were giving way beneath it. It was unclean, despised, repulsive, and superb, ugly in the eyes of the bourgeois, melancholy in the eyes of the thinker.

I guess that it would have looked rather magnificent, exotic, and bizarre, if it had been finished in bronze as originally intended.

Perhaps we are safer, after all, with the less permanent and more mobile giganticisms of street art; the spectacular culture of the people is finally less susceptible to the whims of tyrants and dictators who seek to leave their monstrous marks on human history.

ROYAL DE LUXE / EL XOLO from FKY on Vimeo.