‘Breaking the Elephant’ took me awhile to figure out. It’s really very conceptual and a little bit difficult, and I wonder if it really, I mean, really works.
The zine opens with a basketball game, on a television above a luggage conveyor at an airport or someplace. After a blank page, the next picture shows a pile of something(s), covered by a tarp, with an older truck in the background, and a person, out of focus, walking away. These are the only people that appear. The photos that follow are all landscape details: melting snow; bent and broken trees, shrubs and weeds; fences in various states of disrepair, everything from a pile of twigs to recently rebuilt, and everything in between; a drained swimming pool; more fences.
Taken by itself, it’s something of a mystery. With only the title and the pictures, I’m not sure I could make anything of it.
Thankfully, I picked up one of the 30 Deluxe Editions, and in addition to a print, it came with some additional clues: 3 dice and some text from Alan Klima’s The Funeral Casino: Meditation, Massacre, and Exchange with the Dead in Thailand, describing the (real? invented? I was unable to verify) Thai practice of turning wakes and remembrance parties into casinos.
Taken together, maybe it makes sense?
“Breaking the Elephant” is an interesting euphemism. The Thais have (or had) a practice of separating baby elephants from their mothers, and subjecting the young animals to beatings and torture, to make them docile and dependent, and suitable for giving rides to screaming children, standing around in pens all day, performing tricks for carnival goers and the like. This practice is referred to as “Phajan,” or ‘breaking the elephant spirit.’
Rolling the dice around in my hand, reading about funeral casinos, held “‘to be a friend of the corpse,’ to keep it company. …because, soon after death, the spirit is the only one present who is dead, and in that lonely state is in a sense separated from family and community,”* and flipping through the zine again, a story begins to materialize, a fairly clear tale of falling into a hole, bumping along the bottom for awhile, seeing daylight every now and again, and finally, after many downs and few ups, seeing an opening, a way out of the cage, and going for it, even if what’s beyond looks, well, less than exciting.
Kevin O’Meara’s ‘Breaking the Elephant’ easily gets 4 stars.
The standard edition of ‘Breaking the Elephant’ remains available and you can view a selection from the series on O’Meara’s website. Go check it out and give him some love.
*Klima, Alan. The Funeral Casino: Meditation, Massacre, and Exchange with the Dead in Thailand, quoted in O’Meara, Kevin, ‘Breaking the Elephant’ Deluxe edition, self published, 2018.