Detours: Beauty and beasts

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 09 May, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 09 May, 2007, 12:00am

Since 1992, Canadian artist Gregory Colbert has slung his camera gear over his shoulder about 40 times to trek across Tonga, Borneo, India, Egypt, Namibia, Kenya, Sri Lanka, the Antarctic and the harsh backyards of many other places to produce films.

The results of these expeditions - created without digital trickery or superimposition - play simultaneously, three at a time, at the Nomadic Museum, which is presently gracing a Tokyo suburb.

Ashes and Snow is an evolving project combining photography, art installations and film, all of which portray, in sepia shades, the innate beauty informing the peaceful interaction of man and beast.

From his expeditions, Colbert also gleans still photographs, which have been made into enormous prints on handmade Japanese paper and hung from the rafters of the building in Odaiba.

But such a simple premise does little to invoke the sense of nostalgia-laden wonder (sepia works a treat when it comes to nostalgia) that almost paralyses reverent visitors to the exhibition. So what is it that they see?

At the far end of the first long, dark gallery visitors gather in silence around a small- cinema-sized screen to look at the sorrowful face of an orang-utan as it places its trust in a human being. A woman is cloaked in floaty drapery that matches the languorous movements of herself and the creature, as well as the soundtrack to their river 'dance'.

The two are companions in a drifting canoe and such is their mutual assurance that the orang-utan drinks water from the woman's hands; then, with balletic grace and tenderness, he takes her arm and sucks the drops still tumbling down it. The orang-utan leads the woman by the hand to the prow and a crocodile slides in among the ripples.

From jungle to desert for the second film, in which a boy, eyes closed, snuggles up to an imperious cheetah that has seemingly left its natural environment to do sentry duty on behalf of its young charge. At the crest of a dune, a coalition of cheetahs forms an honour guard around a woman and child; in an Egyptian ruin, sacred ibises acts as a sheltering nomad's air force.

A woman dances deliriously in the third film. The cause of her delight is bath-time for a herd of elephants that constitutes a chorus to her frenzied, watery supplication. Never was a troupe of dancers so monumental.

The sepia stills hanging throughout the three halls reinforce the shimmering beauty of the moving exhibits. A boy kneels and reads to an elephant lying attentively before him; another sleeps in the rain at an elephant's feet; a royal eagle glides above the head of a white-robed modern Cleopatra standing in a atmospheric temple.

Similarly captivating - in a way that the Smithsonian, for example, could never be - is the setting of the exhibition. Built by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban (the man behind Shizuoka's Paper Art Museum and the Paper Church in Kobe), the Nomadic Museum is the travelling home of Ashes and Snow. The Tokyo installation is the third incarnation of a 5,300-square-metre structure originally set up in New York, then Santa Monica.

Designed as a transitory home to reflect the journey loosely depicted in the films and stills, its three walls comprise 152 steel cargo containers, most of which are rented at the destination and erected in a chessboard formation. The rest are used to move the attraction around the world, hence 'nomadic'.

Glimpsing the words 'Trans-america Leasing' and 'Cosco' looming behind affecting, transcendent images and across the venue's Zen garden-style arrangement of thousands of small, dusty rocks can jar the viewer into the 21st century. But helping to restore the magical sensation seeping through the towering 17-metre structure is its internal design: triangular trusses of compressed paper tubes resting on a colonnade of larger paper tubes that form the galleries.

In capturing the idea of diminishing co-existence, Colbert photographed, among many other things, elephants, ibises, eagles, falcons, Mongolian nomads, rhinoceroses, leopards, cheetahs, baboons, monks, manatees, trance dancers and himself free-diving with whales. He has realised a vision with an eloquent message, delivered without commentary or caption: if we didn't know before what we are obliterating, we do now.

Ashes and Snow and the Nomadic Museum will be in Odaiba, Tokyo, until June 24. Admission is 1,900 yen (HK$124). Go to