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Ashes and Snow and Bubba:

If I go into a place where pictures are hanging, and a card on the wall is headlined “About the Artist” and the place is referred to as a “museum”… does that mean that the work featured is, by definition, artistic? What if it’s something else, like a kind of brain-softening massage experience? Or maybe it’s just an encounter with merchandise, no more noble or artistic than the “work” of Andrew Lloyd Webber or Thomas Kinkade.

If you’re the sort of person who is bedeviled by these kinds of questions, then the visual presentation entitled “Ashes and Snow” at the Santa Monica Pier will be a very fresh hell indeed. I can’t remember leaving any other alleged “art” experience with so many questions spinning in my head about the possibly deteriorating relationship between the general public and art.

Anyone who’s already been there has probably given you the note that the show is something of a shoulder shrug but the traveling “nomadic museum” building – two adjoining units built of steel cargo containers stacked like bricks – is worth the trip. That’s generally true, although the building is the beginning of the problem with the “art.” Architect Shigeru Ban’s impressive structure creates a cathedral-like feeling, and the material on display barely uses a third of the space. Thus are we are immediately made to feel that what’s inside must be precious: It’s not.

Gregory Colbert’s large still photos and videos have not been “digitally collaged or superimposed” according to the free brochure, but it doesn’t matter. Colbert has so tricked-up his surfaces and soaked everything in sepia that the organic or “real” nature of the photos evaporates into a dreamy haze.

But where Colbert really tips his hand is in the deployment of turgid New Age music lathered over everything. He’s not letting viewers guess that his work is beautiful and global and perhaps even a little religious; he’s pumping in music that tells them so. Additionally, all three video presentations run only in slow motion, with the biggest screen featuring narrative poetic blarney such as “Remember your dreams” repeated over and over. That’s when you’re certain the “artist” doesn’t trust his audience to do their own thinking.

Some would rightfully argue, “But it’s beautiful.” Yes, it is. In much the same way that the music of the Moody Blues was beautiful when we were all stoned 30 years ago. No, they’ll say, it shows a beautiful link between humans and creatures of the earth. Well, however closely a beautiful woman places her own head to that of an elephant, I refuse to believe they are sharing the same thoughts. (Although I bought it when Leonard Nimoy did the same bit on Star Trek.) Real beauty compels us with its actual beauty, not by means of a fascist environment telling us that it is beauty and we better get on board.

But this has nothing to do with whether people enjoy the show. Just as trans fat in foods doesn’t mean they’re not yummy. “Ashes and Snow” is yummy, but I worry about the weight people are putting on while attending this kind of “art” show. I can imagine the same audiences at a major show in a real museum, saying under their breath, “Remember that elephant picture thing at the beach? Now that was good….”

A few steps away from “Ashes and Snow” is the Bubba Gump Shrimp Company, a shiny piece of corporate kitsch where you can feed your kids. The interior is covered with what looks like rusty old road and advertising signs, but they’re actually new fakes made by the Mummert Sign Company: Art textures and restaurant textures, both manufactured for your comfort and enjoyment.

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