A boy stands peacefully, eyes closed as a falcon soars behind him with wings spread wide.
A young monk sits on his feet reading to an elephant lying before him. There’s an incredible innocence as it appears to listen intently to every word.
A crouched boy calmly nestles up to a seated cheetah who seems to have no cares in the world. They are pillars of equality.
The images are hauntingly beautiful – man/animal encounters that could be wrought with danger are instead distractingly harmonious.
The man behind the lens is Gregory Colbert. He’s also the subject in some of the photographs of this fifteen year-long journey. Colbert can be seen without a breathing apparatus swimming in rhythm with sperm whales. He believes that “nature is an incredible poem and animals are its living masterpieces.” Many in the Western world marvel at Colbert’s work and find it unimaginable that events like this actually take place within nature’s backdrop, but he does not manipulate his art in any way.
“Living with nature is pretty simple really. There’s nothing radical about it,” he says. “If I were to take the hill tribes to a city where there are all these humans, and only a few pigeons, and a dog and cat walking around, that would be unfathomable to them.” The fruits of his exploration led to Ashes and Snow – a multi-media phenomenon of photography, film, architecture, poetry and live installation. It is opening minds to explore what’s out there and eyes to see what’s possible. Sidney Portier said the exhibition is “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? – with animals. They’re being invited to the table as equals.”
In 1992, Colbert set out to explore the relationship between man and animal from the inside out. He searched for civilizations that don’t view animals as others. “There are cultures that survive or are able to exist only by having a very balanced coexistence with other animals,” he says, “and those cultures tend to treat animals as equals.” He found such places during 46 expeditions and counting to India, Egypt, Myammar, Tonga, Sri Lanka, Namibia, Kenya, Antarctica and more. The work features Burmese monks, trance dancers, hills people, manatees, African wild dogs and caracals among others. Sometimes weeks go by in faraway mountains, jungles and deserts without a single image being taken, but Colbert is profoundly patient and always observant. In the end, he wins the trusts of all his subjects. He believes in the expression and artistic nature of animals and the intrinsic chemistry that’s possible if man and animal can spiritually connect. “My imagination has always been inspired by nature’s vision,” he says.
Frustrated with the barren, white walls of most museums, and “the art that goes there to die,” Colbert wanted to create something original and organic. The idea behind the traveling museum, and the funds that made it possible, came during the first showing of Ashes and Snow in 2002 at the Venice Biennale’s Arsenale. It’s a vast shipyard that dates back to the Renaissance era. Colbert’s solo exhibit was the first to fill up the entire space, and required people to walk a mile from end to end to experience it all. The chairman of Rolex was so inspired by what he saw that he bought all of Colbert’s work on the spot. He encouraged him to use the money to think big, build something amazing and then share it with the world.
Colbert took it from there. He enlisted the help of Japanese avant-garde architect Shigeru Ban to help complete the vision. Ban designed the 56,000 square foot Nomadic Museum building. It is composed largely of recyclable and reusable materials. The walls are constructed from 152 used shipping containers. They are stacked in a checkerboard pattern to create rigid walls. Paper tubing constitutes the roof and columns. Inside, instrumental music guides visitors down a wooden walkway surrounded by 6,000 river stones. A handmade curtain made of one million pressed paper tea bags from Sri Lanka hangs from the ceiling and floats 40 feet from the floor. An hour long film documenting each expedition and the awe behind the photo shoots is projected on a large screen in a theatre section of the museum. Two short haiku films also play at each end of the gallery. The sepia-toned unframed photographs hang suspended in a dreamlike calmness from thin cables and rods. Each image is 11 x 8 feet and contains no text or explanation. Colbert won’t share much when it comes to artistic process and other secrets behind his magic. Instead he chooses to let observers get lost in their own fantasies. The intention is to share the experience of wonder, contemplation, serenity and hope.
More than ten million people have experienced Ashes and Snow, making it the most attended exhibition by any artist in history. After its opening in Venice, it traveled to New York in 2005 and on to Santa Monica in 2006. It then traveled to the water’s edge in Tokyo, Japan, smashing attendance records and humbling the man behind the lens. “The response from the visitors here in Japan is different from what we’ve seen anywhere else,” Colbert explains. “They are spending a lot more time. They are going slowly and nobody’s talking. You can hear a pin drop in there. The Japanese are very contemplative and have taken ownership of Ashes and Snow. Many exit the museum and spend some time just sitting outside thinking about it all. I often feel that when I’m in a place that moves me, I don’t need to talk about it. Even lovers when they’re making love – they don’t give you a play by play.” The exhibition moved to Mexico City in 2008 and is charted to travel the globe with no final destination.
Colbert views himself as a storyteller, and throughout his travels he’s been able to see the best and worst of what civilization has done to the environment. His art paints one picture, but it’s just part of the story. His own voice is also incredibly powerful: “We’re at a turning point,” he says. “It’s not good morning global warming, it’s good evening global warming. Yes, we are very rich materially. We’re the richest generation, but did we really have the right – three billion years of nature’s evolution – to have this amazing material party, and then wake up and see this big mess of a party and then like an anorexic, not even recognize that we are starving?”
…and now I think people have awakened and realized something needs to be done now. Companies are not just products, and they can’t perpetuate stuff that promotes social chaos. In the future, it won’t be about just the product. You have to be a statesman and that will be a requirement for every CEO…” – GREGORY COLBERT
Colbert was born in Canada and raised on a six-nation Indian reservation. The totem art he grew up with featured animal and human faces. “By age eight or nine, Colbert says, “most kids transition out of curiosity about animals and into viewing them as something different or even dangerous. I simply never chose to cross that bridge.” As a result, he never distanced himself from them. His art can be seen as a poetic field study on the glory of nature and the problem with materialism. Ashes and Snow has no final destination. Gregory Colbert intends to spend the rest of his life providing a voice for animals and crusading to clean up the environment they share with us.
“We’ve been lured by modern culture into this cynical mistrust of nature, and it’s obviously left us where we are, as a species, but we are different than other generations because of the conscious choice we will or will not make. If we are no longer oblivious to the scientists’ view or the impact – it’s very quantifiable – what’s the next step? We’re not underwater, but we can feel the undertow. We’re the ones who’ve created the undertow. I guess we’re going to try to swim sideways?” – GREGORY COLBERT
Written by: Ben Bamsey