Ruth Macdougall’s Elephant Test

October 2009

Publication: Northings

Ruth Macdougall’s Elephant Test


“At the heart of my work is the engagement and participation of those communities amongst whom I live. As a primary source of information and guidance, I rely on evolving relationships and subtle collaborations to arrive at a work that not only tells a story but also characterises the community that tells and retells that story.” Ruth Macdougall


Ruth Macdougall, who was born in Glasgow in 1981, studied at the Lebanese Academy of Fine Art (ALBA) and Universidad Catholica de Chile in Santiago before graduating from Glasgow’s School of Art’s department of Environmental Art in 2004. During assuming her two-year residency at Timespan in Helmsdale, Sutherland, Macdougall worked in Zambia; she has also worked and exhibited in China. She is, therefore, not only well-travelled, but well-positioned in her ability to contextualise her own art in relationship to international practices and standards.


The term ‘elephant test’ — which may be unfamiliar to many readers — is defined as ‘a situation in which an idea or thing is hard to describe, but instantly recognisable when spotted’. Macdougall has used the curious phrase as a title of a book which documents her Timespan residency. Although the term is apparently applied most fequently in legal contexts, it was appropriated by Macdougall to describe the peculiar mixture of happenstance and circumstance which led to her undertaking an almost undefinable, consciously indeterminate art project based around a mythical elephant journeying across the mountain ranges of northwest Sutherland.


The basis for such an unlikely happening was a series of photographs uncovered by Macdougall in the Timspan archive. Much of the archive itself is derived from donated material, often with unknown or incomplete provenance.  The photographs, taken by an anonymous photographer around the turn of the nineteenth century,  show a llama, a camel and an elephant — all in a setting of incomparable incongruity.  In one of these images, Bosko (as he was subsequently discovered to be named), the elephant can be seen approaching two children — one, an older boy, can be seen laughing. At the tip of his trunk the animal holds a shimmering disk — perhaps a plate or even a mirror. In the background (which appears to show both the camel and the llama), can be seen the beast’s shackles — for he is tethered to a post.


Macdougall found out the identity of the elephant and the travelling circus which was responsible for bringing him to Helmsdale from a guest at an event in Timespan. Mitchell Miller, editor of the Drouth magazine was taken aback to see images of his great, great garnparents’ circus, Pinder Ord’s Royal Number 1.  This travelling show plied the highways and byways of the Scottish highlands, stopping in Helmsdale on its route north.


Such a strange co-incidence prompted Macdougall to follow her instincts and to adapt a previously conceived artwork — which had not come to fruition — in favour of this new deus ex machina. The unrealised work, putatively entitled Coracle involved Macdougall fashioning the eponymous boat-cum-shelter from local ash and hide and traversing the county of Sutherland, from coast to coast, in a more-or-less straight line, crossing whatever obstacles lay in the way. Such an approach had been gleaned from Macdougall’s training in environmental art, originating from an exercise known as derive.  This technique consists of drawing a circle on a map and following its route, ‘on the ground’, precisely; the object is to require the participants to negotiate access to public and private space, thus fulfiling one of the basic tenets of environmental art. As Macdougall explains: “Most of my artwork is socially engaged…involving people and other artists in my work, collaborating with them, getting them to particiapte, fostering a sense of co-authorship. Most of my work is ‘site-specific’ so…I am working in somebody else’s space, in contexts which are particular to that area and are quite personal to a lot of people….that is an element which has run through my work since art school…environmental art is public artwork … you are working outside the gallery space in other peoples’ territory, so there is always a negotiation of space…” [1]


Macdougall’s final work, Escaped Circus Elephant Lives the Dream is documented as a short, eight-minute film and can be described as a site-specific intervention, part-spectacle, part-happening with roots in the history of performance art, absurdist theatre, and even, perhaps, commedia-dell-arte.  A loose narrative structure follow the ‘elephant’s’ escape, and subsequent free wandering high up on the mountainside.




[1] Ruth Macdougall, interviewed by Giles Sutherland, Edinburgh, 9th September, 2009