New age Noah transforms a bestiary
Ashes and Snow on Pier 54
By Wickham Boyle
Gregory Colbert, the peripatetic photographer who set up his 45,000 square foot Nomadic Museum on pier 54 on the brackish Hudson River, is for all the world a modern day Noah. His one-man show called Ashes and Snow features over 200 sepia toned, inspirational photographs of exotic animals melding with human partners. In this time of Tsunami, mudslides, melting arctic glaciers and the Senates recent vote to drill for oil in the pristine Alaskan wilderness, we need a new age Noah to collect, protect and deify our dwindling natural masterpieces.
Colbert is a controversial figure in the haute art world; he is an outsider who has chosen to mount his own work by raising all the money to build his own museum that offers him complete control over, well, everything. The fund raising is done through a non- profit entity called the Bianimale Foundation that supports environmental initiatives in Africa and Colberts work. The Nomadic Museum, as you can surmise, will travel all over the world with this exhibiton. Designed by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban to break down and move, it is comprised of only recycled materials. Shipping containers woven into walls, recycled Indonesian tea bags draped into a diaphanous ceiling, dense cardboard tubes as trusses, sun bleached planking for floors and crushed rivers stone combine to construct a temple honoring the infinite variety of nature. The art world may not like Colbert because he has chosen to do this outside of their purview.
This is an exhibition mounted, like Christos Gates, with no public funds, and with no major museum endorsement. It is the culmination of a thirteen-year hegira, what Colbert calls, Birdpathing. That is following migratory routes in Asia, Africa, and Antarctica and photographing the indigenous populations both human and animal. The exhibition is a wraparound experience that asks viewers to utilize all their senses, it consists of photographs, the innovative setting, elegiac music, and a 45 minute film with narration by Laurence Fishburne from a novel of super romantic letters also by Colbert. It is a huge undertaking for one artist, it has been monumentally successful both monetarily and with many critics; and the multi- billion-dollar art industry does not take this lightly.
The art industry wants the peon public to pay obeisance only at the most modern temples of art, like the newly constructed MOMA. In that museum the admission price is a steep $22 and the art is hung in galleries that do not invite wonder, tears or the susurrated murmurings that ooze from the crowd trekking through Pier 54 at the rate of 5000 a day downtown. When you form the line to purchase a $12 ticket, $6 to seniors and students, with kids under 12 free, you join a phalanx of faithful shuffling into a new temple of art. You share the numinous space with mothers nursing babies, couples sighing and holding hands or quiet, well-coifed matrons nodding approvals. There are naysayers I know, but on the days I swayed to the droning music and took in the images, they were not in earshot.
This building was made of us, it was placed in nature, it was deliberately situated where families, athletes and wanders come to run, bike, skate and commune with the watery frame to our island. Colbert filled it with images that are so inspirational and startling that in this time of altered reality television and special effects we gasp that these photographs are untouched, unmanipulated and raw in their power.
We see a small monkish boy sitting in careful rock pose reading to an equally postured pachyderm. The boy reads and the elephant appears to have folded his trunk over his legs to listen. Colbert insists that respect between species fosters, commands this kind of quiet respect. Any of us who are drawn to interact with animals know the power of wordless connection. In my own house lives an enormous 22-pound part wild cat. He will only visit if you are reading; television holds no sway with him. You must be supine and immersed in print. The projected energy from reading is the vibration that mesmerizes our skittish cat, and these are a but a blip on the screen of what Colbert has achieved, but our personal experiences allow us to connect to art.
We yearn to be drawn into images, sounds, words and spaces that sanctify our often-random existence. Some of the art world would have us scorn Colberts work as narcissistic or derivative. As recent NY Times piece postulates that Colberts images of elephants mimic Richard Avedons 1955 Dovima with Elephants. What I am afraid the critic missed in the seminal high fashion spread is that the elephant was shackled and for my money so was the woman in her high heels, full maquillage and slim couture gown. These were not equals interacting. The world of Colbert, the world of indigenous people, the world of ancient temples and monuments like those shown at Amun at Karnak , Egypt and the Temple of Hatshepsut at Luxor represent a universe designed to eliminate barriers by increasing connection.
When my son was very small he had an endless array of what he called animal dreams, he loved them; they transported his nights into times of wonder. One morning he asked me if adults had animal dreams, and I told him, Only if they are very lucky. When I first met Gregory Colbert in 1992 he had just returned from his first shows in Switzerland and Japan and was pondering his next step. He decided to take the next decade and immerse himself in his fieldwork. But he left me with a recurring dream based on eidetic images of swimming elephants. On random evenings my mind would be awash with the beauty of behemoths weightless and serene. Dont we crave that now, this ability to see images and take them back into our dream world so we can conjure a peaceful harmony with nature, with the world, our island and ourselves. I know I do.
Prehistoric humans drew on caves, they fashioned stories of wooly mammoths, flying monsters and saviors. They revered and honored all the species that surrounded them. Colberts work is a clarion call to return to that kind of parity, a place where we end racism, sexism and even specieism by a mutual respect. That is a tall order for photographs and recycled materials, but the Nomadic Museum on a spring day is the best place to begin this journey.
Ashes and Snow at The Nomadic Museum Pier 13, Hudson River Park and 13 St. Until June 6.