Douglas White | Elephant Totem Song

15 May - 13 June 2009
Douglas White
Elephant Totem (Installation view 3), 2009

Crow's Elephant Totem Song

Once upon a time
God made this Elephant. 

Then it was delicate and small
It was not freakish at all
Or melancholy

The Hyenas sang in the scrub You are beautiful-- 

They showed their scorched heads and grinning expressions
Like the half-rotted stumps of amputations--
We envy your grace                            
Waltzing through the thorny growth
O take us with you to the Land of Peaceful
O ageless eyes, of innocence and kindliness
Lift us from the furnaces
And furies of our blackened faces
Within these hells we writhe
Shut in behind the bars of our teeth
In hourly battle with death
The size of the earth
Having the strength of the earth

So the Hyenas ran under the Elephant's tail
As like a lithe and rubber oval
He strolled gladly around inside his ease
But he was not God no it was not his
To correct the damned
In rage in madness then they lit their mouths
They tore out his entrails
They divided him among their several hells
To cry all his separate pieces
Swallowed and inflamed
Amidst paradings of infernal laughter.

At the Resurrection
The Elephant got himself together with correction
Deadfall feet and toothproof body and bulldozing bones
And completely altered brains
Behind aged eyes, that were wicked and wise.

So through the orange blaze and blue shadow
Of the afterlife, effortless and immense,
The Elephant goes his own way, a walking sixth sense,
And opposite and parallel
The sleepless Hyenas go
Along a leafless skyline trembling like an oven roof
With a whipped run
Their shame-flags tucked hard down
Over the gutsacks
Crammed with putrefying laughter
Soaked black with the leakage and seepings
And they sing: "Ours is the land
Of loveliness and beautiful
Is the putrid mouth of the leopard
And the graves of fever
Because it is all we have--"
And they vomit their laughter.

And the Elephant sings deep in the forest-maze
About a star of deathless and painless peace
But no astronomer can find where it is.

Ted Hughes

Paradise Row presents Elephant Totem Song, Douglas White's second solo show at the gallery.

The works on show extend and deepen the language and sensibility of White's sculptural practice, at the heart of which lies an engagement with the transformative and the poetically redemptive possibilities of art. White works as scavenger and collector, retrieving discarded, overlooked and forgotten objects, natural and man-made. Through minimal, though profound sculptural interventions, namely reconfiguration and re-contextualization, White imbues the objects and materials with new life and new meanings.

Ted Hughes' Crow's Elephant Totem Song has long been an inspiration and touchstone to White. Forming part of Hughes' celebrated series of Crow poems, a dark, sprawling, 'folk-epic', full of subtle and oblique metaphor, the poem features an elephant, a walking innocent, killed by hyenas who envy his grace and peacefulness. They tear his entrails out and dismember him, and at 'the Resurrection', the elephant reassembles himself, so that though misshapen and his brains completely altered, he is now wise and disconnected from the world. Physical dismemberment and reconfiguration become metaphors for inner transformations.

In Elephant Totem Song, strange and wonderful parallels are drawn between the sculptures and the poem. The main body of new works are taken from a single, fallen beech tree, a huge carcass White found in the woods. White completely dismembered the tree, chain-sawing the massive trunk and excavating the roots, down to its thinnest tendrils... And in the gallery, the material is reconfigured, and is at once the thing-in-itself, the raw wood and fibrous material and also re-imagined as flesh, hunks of muscle, veins and capillaries. Sections sit on plinths, forming a display that serves as an essay on scale - from the monumental to the minute and fragile - and the eye is drawn in, observing forms within forms, and once again invited to experience myriad imaginative transformations.

At the end of the poem, we find the reconfigured elephant walking safe from the world of 'graves of fever', dreaming 'About a star of deathless and painless peace / But no astronomer can find where it is.' In the gallery, alongside the wood pieces, White displays a monumental new work from his Dark Moon series, employing wax and light to create a quietly exquisite work that glows - a mysterious, lunar surface.