Bill Woodrow
Elephant 1984

Artwork details

Bill Woodrow born 1948
Date 1984
Medium Vehicle doors, 2 maps and vacuum cleaner
Dimensions Displayed: 3850 x 8200 x 4650 mm
Acquisition Presented by Janet Wolfson de Botton 1996 to celebrate the Tate Gallery Centenary 1997
Not on display


Elephant is a large floor and wall installation by the British artist Bill Woodrow. The central feature is an elephant’s head, the skull of which is made from car doors and panels which still bear their original red, blue and black paint. The logo of the car manufacturer Volvo is visible on one of the blue panels. The elephant’s cream, red and silver trunk is made from the metal and hose of a vacuum cleaner, and the head itself has been constructed on an old ironing board then affixed to the wall. The elephant’s ears are cut from the paper of two large maps, the remainders of which hang a short distance from either side of the head, with each ear remaining attached to the map from which it was cut by means of a twisted paper ribbon. These maps, which show cut outs of South America on the left side and Africa on the right, are suspended from nails on wooden hanging frames. The end of the trunk is wrapped around a fake automatic gun, the hilt of which hangs down towards ten car doors of various colours that are placed upside down on the floor in front of the elephant’s head in a broad circle.

Elephant was made in Woodrow’s studio at Acre Lane in Brixton, London, in 1984. The work’s making involved welding, paper cutting and assemblage. As Woodrow recalled in 1985:

It became big, very big, very quickly. The studio was a jagged sea of car doors of all colours and growing out of the centre of them all was this multi-coloured, ear-, trunk- and tusk-less volvo elephant head. To attach the trunk and tusks I had to get the half completed head into its final position on the wall: well I tried, but it was impossible, it was too big, too heavy, and I was very nearly crushed after having managed to almost lift it above my head.
(Woodrow 1985, accessed 15 June 2015.)

The metal used for Elephant was salvaged from a car breaker’s yard in Bermondsey in south London. In 1985 Woodrow said that these ‘fifteen or sixteen car doors and assorted body panels … had been stacked outside my studio for five or six months and I remember one of the strongest things about them was their colour, especially in the wet weather’ (Woodrow 1985, accessed 15 June 2015). Although the colours of the metal remain vivid in Elephant, the paint has worn away in some areas revealing the original silver of the panels prior to their painting. The art historian John Roberts has described Woodrow as an ‘urban rag-picker and scavenger’ who habitually trawled the streets of Brixton and Peckham to find materials for his work (Roberts 1996, p.9). Woodrow’s reliance on found objects that are transformed through manipulation and their newfound associations with each other can also be seen in Car Door, Ironing Board and Twin Tub with North American Indian Head-Dress 1981 (Tate T03355).

Woodrow has suggested that the meaning of Elephant evolved during the creative process, and that the initial impetus for its production was his return to London after a two-month period in Canada:

The only way for me to avoid chronic depression was to set out to make a sculpture that at a minimum would keep me warm and at best keep me mentally alive, hopefully excited. I remember thinking, it has to be big, much bigger than anything else I had made before. The idea of an elephant appeared quite rapidly … I had no desire to change the scale of anything I made, just make it to what I thought was life size, no measurements or visits to the Zoo, maybe a quick visual reference to an old cover of the National Geographic.
(Woodrow 1985, accessed 15 June 2015.)

Woodrow has explained further that he had no inclination to make a complete elephant, instead producing just the head ‘mounted colonial fashion high on the end wall of the studio’ (Woodrow 1985, accessed 15 June 2015). Political metaphors and associations increasingly crept into the sculpture, for instance the ears, which were crafted from old school maps found on a rubbish skip that still bore colonial place names. Woodrow stated in 1985 that as he worked on this sculpture he came to recognise that ‘Africa and South America were/are third world continents, a point, in fact the point, that became more and more important in my reflecting on the work’ (Woodrow 1985, accessed 15 June 2015).

Roberts has commented that during the early 1980s, ‘nature and culture are in irrevocable and damaging conflict in Woodrow’s art’ (Roberts 1996, p.18). It could be argued that in Elephant the natural world as represented by the creature is displayed as a trophy object of ‘culture’, which is represented by the car materials, maps and the gun. Narrative and symbolic elements such as these have appeared regularly in Woodrow’s work, although since the late 1980s he has increasingly used welded steel and cast bronze as his main materials. Woodrow has been associated with the New British Sculpture movement that developed in London in the 1980s. This group of artists, which included Anish Kapoor, Richard Deacon and Antony Gormley focused their work on the materiality of sculpture, the process of fabrication and narrative or metaphorical imagery.

Further reading
Bill Woodrow, ‘Elephant’, 18 July 1985, extract from Entre el Objeto y la Imagen, exhibition catalogue, Ministerio de Cultura, Madrid, and British Council, London 1986, available on the artist’s website,, accessed 15 June 2015.
Lynne Cooke, Bill Woodrow: Sculpture 1980–86, exhibition catalogue, Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh 1986, pp.67, 71.
John Roberts, Fool’s Gold, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain, London 1996.

Jo Kear
June 2015

Supported by Christie’s.

About this artwork