An elephant in a zoo evokes a range of emotions. First comes awe: its size and majesty, the depth of the wrinkles in its skin. Awe may settle into reverence, a moment of tension, an immediate and irrevocable awareness of its power. Then: on to the tigers.
But if you stick around, and pay close attention, you might notice something. Elephants in captivity tend to rock and sway, bob their heads and swing their trunks, pace enclosures, even seemingly walk in place. At a zoo in South Carolina, photographer Colleen Plumb picked up on this pattern. After deciphering what it meant, she began filming dozens of elephants at more than fifty zoos across the country, assembling the footage into a multimedia project called Thirty Times a Minute. While filming, Plumb has overheard occasional observations about the elephants’ movements (Look! The elephant is dancing!), and has eavesdropped on explanations that range from zookeepers insisting the movement is good for circulation to an admission from one keeper that this is, in fact, how these animals cope with being caged. Circus handlers apparently credit the swaying to the elephants keeping time with their pulses, which beat thirty times a minute.
In reality, a caged elephant’s repetitive movement is a coping mechanism, what’s called “stereotypic behavior.” Elephants in the wild walk up to fifty miles a day, traversing vast tracts of land in their shambling way. Their “dancing,” which Plumb calls a “wish-walk,” reflects this lack and longing. The behavior can have devastating consequences: Over time, foot and joint injuries debilitate captive elephants.
Thirty Times a Minute—printed here but more often exhibited as public art (projected onto walls and buildings in Chicago, against the rubble of demolished blocks in downtown Detroit, against the rushing froth of Oregon’s Latourell Falls)—forces people to confront this phenomenon in their own habitats: walking home from work, from the bodega, to the bar. Superimposed against illogical backgrounds, Plumb mines these animals’ numinous immensity. An elephant may appear to paw a traffic cone, or nose a fern. In her hometown of Chicago, Plumb’s elephants have been suspended gently above the city’s eponymous river as tourist boats ease by, their trunks swinging across a graffitied wall where kids like to gather. In any spot, a life-sized elephant is a surprise. “Some people are moved, some get sad or upset, maybe think it’s strange,” Plumb explains. “But no one expects it.”
Viewed on the street, these incursions impart an otherworldly tone, the viewer implicated by the trappings. But Plumb is less interested in editorializing than disrupting people’s context, springing a feeling moment upon them.
To create this work, Plumb uses a generator (at Latourell Falls, she dragged it down a rocky path on a luggage cart), a projector (she uses a plastic bin with a cutout circle to keep it dry for long periods in rain and snow), a media player, and a camera. Sometimes, the act of projecting the work becomes a kind of team effort. At a Detroit coffee shop, she observed the blasted-out pit of what was once a strip club and, over the course of a conversation with the owner, wound up on his roof projecting into it. Another time, a neighbor offered his own roof as a screen. Property owners aren’t always accommodating; security guards and park rangers have politely and not-so-politely asked her to pack up and go.
Having projected Thirty Times a Minute across the country, Plumb now has her sights set on Paris. She’s heard the French police are especially strict.
— Julia Cooke