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Nomadic Museum Rises Next to Pier: will house unique exhibit, Ashes and Snow

Some very large trucks pulled into beach parking lots north of Santa Monica Pier last week, signaling the beginning of a unique installation.

A temporary museum to house more than 100 large-scale photographic works and an accompanying 35mm film by artist Gregory Colbert is now under construction in the 1550 lot, adjacent to the pier. It will become, in the words of its makers,  “a timeless realm in which wild animals communicate and co-exist with humans.” 

An exhibition, “Ashes and Snow,” will be displayed from January 14 through May 14, 2006, in this Nomadic Museum, a 56,000-square-foot temporary structure designed by architect Shigeru Ban. 

The building is composed largely of recyclable and reusable materials — used shipping containers for the walls and paper tubing for the roof and columns — demonstrating sustainable practices and an innovative architectural approach.

The Ashes and Snow exhibition is directed by environmentalist Paul Hawken. Corporate sponsor  Rolex SA has underwritten the preservation of the body of work as it was originally shown at the Venice Arsenale in 2002. That collection has been augmented  by photographic artworks and film images from recent expeditions, so that the show itself evolves as it travels.

The Santa Monica exhibit is the third incarnation of Ashes and Snow, Colbert’s fourteen-year personal and artistic odyssey. To date, he has completed more than thirty expeditions to places as diverse as India, Egypt, Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Kenya, Ethiopia, Namibia, Tonga, the Azores, Antarctica, and Borneo to explore the natural interaction between man and animal.

A group of private collectors has backed Colbert’s journeys to photograph elephants, whales, manatees, eagles, and other animals in their own environments and on their own terms. He sees the animals as “nature’s living masterpieces.”

The mixed media photographic works marry umber and sepia tones in a distinctive encaustic process on handmade Japanese paper.  The artworks measure  approximately five feet by eight feet and are mounted without explanatory text.

“In exploring the shared language and poetic sensibilities of all animals, I am working towards rediscovering the common ground that once existed when people lived in harmony with animals,”  Colbert said. “The images depict a world that is without beginning or end, here or there, past or present. I hope the overall effect is an experience of wonder and contemplation, serenity, and hope.”

The Nomadic Museum building is composed of 152 steel cargo containers, stacked and secured in a checkerboard pattern to create rigid walls. The structure of the roof trusses is partially constructed of paper tubes that rest on two-and-a-half-foot paper tube columns. Designed for easy assembly and disassembly, the entire exhibition can be packed into eight containers as it travels from place to place. The remaining 144 containers will not be transported but rather borrowed at each new location.

Visitors enter the gallery space via a central wooden walkway bordered on either side by stone-filled bays over which the unframed artworks are hung from thin cables and suspension rods installed between the columns. This threshold creates a visual boundary between the physical space of the public walkway and the mystical domain of the images. Above, a diaphanous handmade curtain made of one million pressed paper tea bags from Sri Lanka is suspended from the ceiling, floating forty feet above the floor. Colbert’s one-hour 35mm film, edited by two-time Academy Award-winner Pietro Scalia and narrated by actor Laurence Fishburne, is continuously projected on a large-format screen in a column-free theater under a tensile roof supported by bracket beams.

Ashes and Snow’s Nomadic Museum building is designed by Shigeru Ban Architects, based in Tokyo, which leads a distinguished team that includes David Gensler and Irwin Miller of Gensler (associate architect), a global engineering, design, and architectural firm noted for its leadership in sustainable building practices; exhibition designer Ombra Bruno of Officina di Architettura Milan; and lighting designer Alessandro Arena of Catania.Ashes and Snow debuted in Venice debut in 2002. From March to June this year, more than 300,000 visitors attended the second incarnation of the exhibition at New York’s famed Pier 54 on the Hudson River. From here, it will move on to other  sites in this country, Europe and Asia.

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