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Capital Wags

The whimsical donkeys and elephants all over Washington have some people butting heads over art and politics

July 22, 2002|JOHANNA NEUMAN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

WASHINGTON — The last elephant is unpainted, awaiting a judge's decision on whether People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has a constitutional right to use the beast for a message about mistreatment of circus animals.

But the rest of the so-called party animals are on the streets of the nation's capital. Decorated as everything from Elvis Presley to a tourist donning an FBI baseball cap and sporting a video camera, the animals are providing a touch of whimsy to a city shadowed by terrorism. Painted by local artists and pop artists these 800-pound sculptures of polyurethane resin depicting Republicans (elephants) and Democrats (donkeys) are bringing smiles--and a few rolled eyes--to residents and visitors alike.

"As both whimsy and as art, this is the biggest event in D.C. since I've been here," said Sam Gilliam, a painter of abstract art whose Seurat-style elephant stands in front of the National Gallery of Art. "Art is another way people have of talking." So popular have the animals become that their placement has occasioned some high-toned lobbying (imagine that, in this city). City officials recently installed "Florida Hybrid," an elephant decorated with butterfly ballots, in front of the Turkish Embassy on Massachusetts Avenue. Embassy officials were delighted, but insisted they needed a donkey too. "The British Embassy has both," Turkish diplomat Cihad Erginay explained.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Saturday August 03, 2002 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 8 inches; 307 words Type of Material: Correction
Elephant design--A July 22 Southern California Living story about the decorated elephant and donkey statues scattered through Washington, D.C., stated that the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals hired New Yorker magazine artist Harry Bliss to design an elephant. Actually, Bliss donated his design after being approached by PETA.

At every stop, from the watermelon elephant in front of Whole Foods to the woolly mammoth in front of the National Geographic Society, the animals interrupt the cityscape with a sense of the unexpected.

"Hey, it's like summer reading," said Elizabeth Broun, director of the Smithsonian's National Museum of American Art. "You can read Heisenberg's theories of quantum mechanics all you want, but in the summer, we all want a great mystery novel." Sharon Roy Finch, an artist whose elephant depicting Washington's monuments guards the Delta Shuttle at Reagan National Airport, thinks the animals are beloved because they're so big. "There's something engaging about being eye-to-eye with an animal," she said. "It makes you feel like a toddler again, looking a golden retriever in the eye."

But Blake Gopnik, chief art critic for the Washington Post, thinks they are far too small. "Give me a real, life-sized Indian elephant on every corner, I would have gone for that," he said. "These look like oversized key chains." Gopnik thinks so little of the animals that he has no plans to write about them. "Either they're not art or they are, in which case they're incredibly bad."

Trend Started in Zurich

Although Chicago is credited with starting the animals-as-public-art craze, installing 300 cows on parade in 1999 as a tribute to the town's gritty history as a meat-packing capital, the trend actually got its start in Switzerland a year earlier, when cows appeared on the streets of Zurich. Ever since, cities have been experimenting with animals that wink: In New Orleans, it was giant fish; Cincinnati did pigs. New York did cows; Toronto, moose; Santa Fe, horses; and Cincinnati, hogs. Miami Beach, perhaps the most self-amused, did 8-foot fiberglass pink flamingos. Los Angeles, naturally, did angels.

In most cities, the installations went off without a hitch, but this is Washington, where anything worth doing is worth having political squabbles over.

First, the Green Party protested that the nation has more than two parties. The Greens pointed out that in the last presidential election, Ralph Nader, a Green, took 6% of the vote in heavily Democratic Washington, D.C., while George W. Bush, a Republican, got 9%. Party officials wanted the D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities to decorate the streets with 100 sunflowers--their party emblem. A judge ruled that the animals were not political speech but art. Case dismissed.

(In fact, the commission considered other animals before settling on the party animals. There was some discussion of pandas--the National Zoo's top draw--and someone suggested squirrels, although as the Daily Oklahoman commented, "That was wisely rejected. When you think of squirrels, you think of nuts, and then you think of Congress.")

PETA sued the commission for rejecting its designs: a shackled circus elephant with a tear running down its face and a bull hook in its side. Hiring New Yorker magazine artist Harry Bliss, PETA designed an elephant to represent the "miserable, deprived, and broken animals used in circuses ... forced to perform uncomfortable, confusing, and often painful acts over and over again under the threat of thrashings with a bull hook." The commission rejected the design because it had a political message, even though other animals--like the "Time for Heroes" elephant clearly had something to say.

"This is discrimination based on message," said Arthur Spitzer, the ACLU lawyer handling the case for PETA. Public art, he said, "is not a forum for just happy speech."

Acts of Vandalism

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