Ashes and Snow
Ashes and Snow by Canadian artist Gregory Colbert is an installation of photographic artworks, films, and a novel in letters that travels in the Nomadic Museum, a temporary structure built exclusively to house the exhibition. The work explores the shared poetic sensibilities of human beings and animals. Ashes and Snow has traveled to Venice, New York, Santa Monica, Tokyo, and Mexico City. To date, Ashes and Snow has attracted more than 10 million visitors, making it the most attended exhibition by a living artist in history.
Each exhibition consists of more than fifty large-scale mixed media photographic artworks and three film installations. The photographic artworks measure approximately 3.5 by 2.5 meters (11.5 x 8.25 feet). Each one is created using an encaustic process on handmade Japanese paper. The films include one 60-minute full-length 35mm film and two short “haiku” films. None of the photographic or film images have been digitally collaged or superimposed.
The films are poetic narratives, rather than documentaries. The full-length feature Ashes and Snow: The Film was edited by two-time Oscar-winner Pietro Scalia. It is narrated by Laurence Fishburne (English version), Enrique Rocha (Spanish version), Ken Watanabe (Japanese version), and Jeanne Moreau (French version). Narrations are forthcoming in Portuguese, Russian, Chinese, Arabic, German, and Italian. Musical collaborators include Michael Brook, David Darling, Heiner Goebbels, Lisa Gerrard, Lukas Foss, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Jóhann Jóhannsson and Djivan Gasparyan.
The title Ashes and Snow refers to the literary component of the exhibition—a fictional account of a man who, over the course of a yearlong journey, composes 365 letters to his wife. Fragments of the letters comprise the narration in the films. Ashes and Snow: A Novel in Letters by Gregory Colbert was first published in 2004.
Since 1992, Gregory Colbert has launched more than 60 expeditions to locations including India, Burma, Sri Lanka, Egypt, Dominica, Ethiopia, Kenya, Tonga, Namibia, and Antarctica to film and photograph interactions between human beings and animals. Elephants, whales, manatees, sacred ibis, Antigone cranes, royal eagles, Gyr falcons, rhinoceros hornbills, cheetahs, leopards, African wild dogs, caracals, baboons, eland, meerkats, gibbons, orangutans, and saltwater crocodiles are among the animals that he has filmed and photographed. Human subjects include Burmese monks, trance dancers, San people, and other indigenous peoples from around the world. To date, Colbert has collaborated with over 130 species.
The public debut of Ashes and Snow took place in 2002 at the Arsenale in Venice. The exhibition has since traveled in the Nomadic Museum to New York, Santa Monica, Tokyo, and Mexico City.
The Nomadic Museum
Colbert originally conceived the idea for a sustainable traveling museum in 1999. He envisioned a structure that could easily be assembled or recycled in each location and that would serve as the architectural component of the installation on its global journey.
The Arsenale inspired the architectural concepts of the Nomadic Museum, which debuted in New York in 2005. The first Nomadic Museum utilized shipping containers stacked in a checkerboard pattern to create the exterior and interior walls. The architecture of the Nomadic Museum continued to evolve as the exhibition traveled to Los Angeles in 2006 and Tokyo in 2007.
The most recent version of the Nomadic Museum was located on the Zócalo in Mexico City. Designed by Colombian architect Simón Vélez in collaboration with Gregory Colbert, it demonstrated sustainable practices and an innovative architectural approach through the use of guadua bamboo as the primary structural component. The first of its kind, the 5,130 square meters (55,218 square feet) Zócalo Nomadic Museum was the largest bamboo building ever built.
The Nomadic Museum, is charted to travel the globe with no final destination.
Critical reception of the exhibition has been largely positive. In one of the first reviews of Ashes and Snow, Alan Riding wrote for The New York Times, "The earth-tone photographs are...windows to a world in which silence and patience govern time." Modern Painters, art critic Joseph Giovannini wrote: “The Nomadic Museum restores the possibility of wonder to museums whose excesses of clarity and light have banished the shadows. The power of the show and the power of the building are so reciprocal that it is difficult to separate the dancer from the dance. Colbert and Ban condition the senses of the visitors to facilitate their psychological entry into the space of the photographs, to deliver the message that man is not, and cannot be, separate from the nature within which he evolved... Ashes and Snow is a show that is disarmingly, and grandly, simple." A Japanese edition of Newsweek praised the exhibition as "an expression of the poetic possibilities of a harmonious relationship between animals and man.” In The Globe and Mail, Simon Houpt wrote that "Colbert’s work operates in a parallel universe to ours, an earnest, refreshing, post-ironic world where pure wonder and awe still reside." Felicity Glover wrote for the South China Morning Post, "Colbert's images are mind-blowing; more so upon learning that none of them have been digitally altered or superimposed... The sepia and umber tones give the photographs — printed in a distinctive encaustic process on handmade Japanese paper — a sense of timelessness; they could have been taken now or 100 years ago."
However, not all reviews of Ashes and Snow have been favorable. A review in The New York Times described it as "an exercise in conspicuous narcissism that is off the charts, even by today's standards," criticizing its colonialism-tinged portrayals of non-Western subjects and its "derivative" imagery. KCRW's art critic Edward Goldman referred to the exhibition as "snake oil from a travelling art salesman," declaring that the imagery was likely to appeal to those who "are inclined to open [their] hearts and wallets to the rhetoric of TV evangelists like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell." Author and critic Amardeep Singh was "deeply annoyed by the strong current of exoticism and artificiality," finding fault with the "manipulative environment of the gallery," which "plays up a 'spiritual' and 'exotic' atmosphere that nullifies any objective quality the photographs themselves might have."
- "El Mañana: Acaba Museo Nómada su peregrinar (2008–)".
- "The Art Newspaper: Attendance Figures".
- "Abre la Secretaría de Cultura el Museo Nómada en el Zócalo de la Ciudad de México (2008–)".
- "Vegetal steel: bamboo as eco-friendly building material (2008–)".
- Riding, Alan. "Dances With Whales."New York Times. May 23, 2002. Print.
- Giovannini, Joseph. "21st Century Bestiary." Modern Painters: 79-83. Print.
- "Exhibition." Newsweek. Japan. March 28, 2007. Print.
- Houpt, Simon. "Canadian artist Gregory Colbert's Photographs are the subject of a giant exhibit in Venice." Globe & Mail. Toronto. 9 April 2002, Arts sec. Print.
- Glover, Felicity. "Moving images." South China Morning Post. Hong Kong. 8 May 2005. Print.
- Smith, Roberta. "When Nature Becomes a Looking Glass: A Tour Through the Exotic Elsewhere." New York Times. March 12, 2005.
- Goldman, Edward. "Snake Oil from a Travelling Art Salesman." Art Talk. KCRW. Jan 24, 2006.
- Singh, Amardeep. "Ashes & Snow: A Traveling Circus." May 29, 2005.
- Official website
- 13th Annual Thea Awards - Award for Outstanding Achievement - Ashes and Snow - a description of the award-winning exhibition
- Ashes and Snow at the Internet Movie Database
- "Flying Elephants Presents I" at youtube.com
- Flying Elephants Presents II" at youtube.com
- "Ashes and Snow - Feather to Fire" at youtube.com