Dances With Elephants

Denizens of Manhattan's painfully hip meatpacking district have surely already noticed the massive structure--148 shipping containers stacked in an elegant checkerboard pattern, jutting 672 feet out into the Hudson River--and pedestrians throughout the city may have found themselves face to face with enigmatic posters of Zenned-out elephants. For a month beginning March 5, Hudson River Park's Pier 54 will be home to the Nomadic Museum and photographer Gregory Colbert's "Ashes and Snow," a one-man multimedia show. "Just as Christo and Jeanne-Claude put the gates in [Central Park] and changed the way people saw the park, this is perhaps helping New Yorkers rediscover their riverside," the 44-year-old Colbert tells NEWSWEEK.

Disdainful of an art world he calls a "very confined ghetto" and typical museums he views as "overbearing white cubes," Colbert decided to eschew the easy way of showing his photography. The newly reopened Museum of Modern Art was just not going to cut it. So he commissioned architect Shigeru Ban, a finalist to rebuild the World Trade Center, to create a 4,500-square-foot space to house "Ashes and Snow."

"A lot of people are intimidated by going to certain museums," says the photographer. "They don't feel like they're sophisticated enough, that they know enough. People rarely have that feeling when they go to a concert or see a film or buy books. This structure was meant to be inviting and not overbearing." The resulting edifice, the Nomadic Museum, consists of 148 rented and reusable empty cargo containers that make up the walls and humungous recyclable paper tubes that serve as weight-bearing columns. The museum is not only environmentally kind but, as its name suggests, moveable--the shipping container walls will be used to transport the entire show to Los Angeles and then on to Paris, Rome and Beijing.

Looking at Colbert's 3-by-10-foot photographs, it becomes clear what appealed to him about Ban's holistic design, which can be rebuilt to fit into whatever space is available. The 200 photos that comprise the bulk of "Ashes and Snow" are epic yet gentle compositions that will hang suspended in midair between the columns running down the museum's nave. Over the course of 13 years in India, Sri Lanka, Tonga and elsewhere, Colbert has captured surprising images of people dancing, communing and having sundry special moments with members of the animal kingdom: Hindu temple members frolic with wizened elephants; bushmen lie at the feet of habituated cheetahs. Colbert himself is pictured swimming with a whale. The images, all the more arresting in that they are unmanipulated and naturally lit, are printed on Japanese paper made using 300-year-old techniques. "People in photography love to talk about their toolboxes," he says. "To me the most important thing in the toolbox is natural light and the species I collaborate with, be it Homo sapiens or elephant or whatever."

The exhibit as a whole can be seen as a sort of manifesto. Colbert, who counts as his patrons designer Donna Karan and ecologist-entrepreneur Paul Hawken, echoes Christo's democratic approach to art; everyone is welcome and he hopes exhibitgoers re-examine their relationships with animals. "If you watched the Super Bowl, half the ads had animals," he says. "The most frequent contact there is an animal selling them a product." It's hard not to admit Colbert is on to something, even as he delivers dippy sentiments like, "We have no framework to look with wonderment in a unified way at these totemic species" and "We humbly bow to our nonhuman collaborators." The exhibit was organized by the Bianimale Foundation, a nonprofit group he cofounded that works for the conservation of animals and their habitats. And although the exhibit's chief patron is Rolex, which helped support a 2002 incarnation of "Ashes and Snow" in Venice, Colbert insisted that their logo appear nowhere near the museum.

"Ashes and Snow" will also include a "floating library" with pages from an epistolary novel written by Colbert projected onto screens. And at the far end of the museum an hourlong film, with narration by the actor Laurence Fishburne over footage of dancing gyr falcons and gamboling pachyderms, will be projected onto a large screen. "I was floored when I first heard about this [project]," says Gordon Baldwin, an associate curator for photographs at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles. "The imagery has mythic underpinnings. What impresses me most is that they have an immaculate simplicity. They're also profoundly moving."

While Colbert's photographs are nothing if not peaceful, the museum's construction has had its own share of agita. "We're doing something that's basically impossible," says William Goins, a filmmaker who was working on a documentary about the show when he signed up to be the Nomadic Museum's project manager last August. "There's nothing comparable to this anywhere."

Pier 54, once owned by the Cunard Line, was where the Lusitania first shoved off and where the Titanic's stunned survivors were deposited. Although studies had concluded that the old pier would bear the weight of the museum, nobody had bothered to calculate whether the cranes required for its construction could be supported. The cranes now operate on an adjacent barge but the tubular columns that arrived first were 11 inches too long. Then the steel wedges that make up the roof became giant kites when river winds swept underneath them as they were lowered onto the building, nearly dragging a crane into the river. Grizzled dockbuilders are putting in 12-hour days, seven days a week to get the structure ready in time. ("Between you and me," says Steve Medich, an electrical foreman on the site, pointing to an exhibit poster of a boy kneeling before an elephant, "I don't get it.")

As for Colbert, he stops short of describing himself as an activist, but he says he hopes his work has an impact outside the art world. It is about inclusion, he says. It is about reconnecting people to the natural world. "Is this project a celebration of living nature? Or is this project a requiem?" he asks. "We're going to find out probably in the next 15 to 20 years." But for the time being, he remains a cautious optimist.