THE GIANT ELEPHANT, prostrate on its wrinkled limbs, looks to be intently listening to the words of a small boy. Two whales swirl smoothly beneath the sea, accompanied by a bare-chested, pony-tailed man who swims with them. An orangutan nestles against a gnarled tree, being read to by an indigenous woman wearing a tasselled shawl. This is Ashes and Snow, a travelling exhibition that made its debut at the Venice Arsenale in 2002, taking up 125,000sqft of a 15th-century shipyard owned by the Italian navy. It's the largest solo exhibition mounted in that country. In March last year, it went to New York, where it was mounted on the Hudson River's Pier 54, attracting half a million people during its three-month run. It's now in Los Angeles, at the Santa Monica Pier, until May 14. Ashes and Snow is a vast, dramatic show - an awe-inspiring tribute to nature, tribal life and endangered animals. More of an event than an exhibition, it was conceived and created by Gregory Colbert, a Canadian-born artist who began his career in Paris making documentary films. He then spent a decade travelling to remote parts of the planet - into the innermost regions of India, Burma, Sri Lanka, Kenya, Namibia and Antarctica. His only objective was to catalogue the interactions between people and animals. Although the images are posed, there is a rawness about the 100 large-scale photos and three 10-minute, 35mm films: a falcon's wings seem to sprout from the shoulders of a Tibetan boy; a child cuddles close to a cheetah. The photographs are sepia- and umber-toned and printed on handmade Japanese paper. '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 says. 'The images depict a world that is without beginning or end, here or there, past or present.' Colbert says he drew inspiration from imagining how animals might dream. 'The cave paintings of the San tribe from the Kalahari Desert in Africa and the art of other indigenous tribes around the world also demonstrate their ability to look from the inside out,' he says. 'When I started Ashes and Snow in 1992, I set out to explore the relationship between man and animals from the inside out.' These are no ordinary animals. The photos and films feature Asian elephants, antigone cranes, tyras, tapirs, ibis and ocelots. There are saltwater crocodiles, Harris hawks, elands and meerkats - animals that exist in the wild and embody the majesty of nature. The works are mostly romantic: a young girl immersed in a lake up to her waist, a wild bird emerging from it; ethereal figures swathed in white as a royal eagle soars overhead; and a beautiful woman asleep in a hollowed-out log, her hair floating in the water. Ashes and Snow is mounted in what's called the Nomadic Museum - so named because the structure in which it is housed travels along with all the works - which is as much of an attraction as the artwork within its walls. The 56,000sqft structure is made from 152 steel cargo containers, stacked 10 metres high and combined with materials that are mostly recyclable and reusable. Huge spotlights illuminate the exterior at night. Once inside, visitors walk down a central timber walkway, bordered by bays filled with small stones. The unframed works are suspended from thin cables. The lighting is mellow and dim, and soft, spiritual music plays in the background. The dreamy nature of the images translates to the space - floating 13 metres above the floor is a diaphanous, handmade curtain, created from a million pressed paper tea bags from Sri Lanka. The Nomadic Museum was made by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, designed to be taken apart and reassembled as the exhibition travels the world. Ban says the building 'successfully frames a context for viewing the work of Gregory Colbert, which in my mind poetically integrates man's interaction with nature at its most spiritual level.' Ban typically uses existing resources to create something new and functional: for the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which needed shelters for Rwandan refugees, he created makeshift homes from plastic sheets and paper tubes. He also put together emergency housing in Kobe, Japan, after the 1995 earthquake, doing the same for people in Turkey and India who were affected by earthquakes there, and built 100 houses from blocks of earth for the victims of the tsunami in Sri Lanka. Ashes and Snow is expected to tour other cities in the US, as well as Asia, Europe and South America.