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The Elephant Was Plastered but What About the Sculptor?

updated 04/14/1980 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/14/1980 01:00AM

Like his fellow Bulgarian Christo, Mikhail Simeonov is not exactly a miniaturist. But instead of building a nylon fence over 24½ miles of California, Mikhail set out to create his chef d'oeuvre in Africa: casting an elephant in the wild. The 50-year-old sculptor is murky in explaining his project: "The first cave drawing by man was a symbolic act of possessing nature. Man then proclaimed himself the center of nature and created laws to benefit his species alone. Now he must give back to nature its power."

To this end, the artist planned to cast a "sleeping elephant" and make 10 life-size bronzes, which would be sold for $250,000 apiece. The proceeds would be split between African wildlife agencies and a trust which would sue countries and individuals who impinge upon elephants' rights.

Mikhail (like Christo, he goes by a single name) enlisted the support of those Africa lovers Cheryl Tiegs and Peter Beard to help raise seed money. They happily co-hosted a party, wrapping in the rock group Fleetwood Mac (whose new LP happened to be titled Tusk), in that urban jungle Studio 54. The affair grossed $100,000, but wound up $6,000 in the red.

The "Fleetmac Wood" event, as Mikhail called it, didn't faze him. He has suffered for his art. He left Bulgaria in 1964 because the cultural commissars wouldn't let him sculpt, and in 1971 was banished from Tunisia for sledge-hammering public statues ("I was fed up with creating monuments to man's vanity"). He now lives in New York.

In February Mikhail left for Kenya, sending ahead 1,200 pounds of alginate (a compound used in casting dental molds) worth $6,000. Alas, the customs agents thought he was a smuggler and his government permits had lapsed. But U.S. book publisher Nicolas Ducrot cut the red tape by pointing out the potential millions available to Kenya's wildlife from the project. Then Mikhail got permission from munitions billionaire Adnan Khashoggi to choose his elephant from among the herd of 600 on the 117,000-acre ranch the Saudi co-owns north of Nairobi.

After a French feast prepared by the Khashoggi chef, the sculptor, a veterinarian and 40 Africans set out. Spying a bull at the edge of the manicured lawn, the hunters gave chase. The vet let fly with a tranquilizer dart but the animal kept moving. Twenty minutes later it swayed and slumped into a deep sleep. Mikhail and his gang quickly made molds of each profile (it took 20 men and a truck to roll the beast over). The work done, the elephant was roused by the buzz of a helicopter and a stimulant, and staggered off into the bush. The adventure apparently confirmed a long-held African suspicion. "White people," shrugged one native, "veddy, veddy funny."

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