Ashes and Snow


By: Josephine Craven /

The Ashes and Snow exhibition by Gregory Colbert made its first debut at The Arsenale in Venice in 2002. The reviews were extrodinary and he had the New York Times calling him “the best of the best”. Immediately after this show Rolex bought one of every photograph and sponsored his traveling nomadic exhibitions. (1) The next four were even more popular first starting in New York in 2005; Colbert built a space from recycled crates on Pier 54. It then traveled to the Santa Monica Beach in Los Angeles in 2006, Tokyo in 2007, and finished at the Zocalo Square in Mexico City in 2008. (2) This was absolutely more of an installation project than a photographic exhibition, because it included two films, written letters, and then the space itself

Colbert started out as a filmmaker when he was younger, though very little is known about is background, including his education and family. Almost every interview on film was done in a different country and his voice is dubbed over in that language, so I wasn’t able to understand what he was saying. The only written interview he has done was his press release, while all others are done by his colleagues. But what is known about him is that it took him over a decade to complete the project of Ashes and Snow where he traveled to India, Burma, Sri Lanka, Egypt, and Kenya to “rediscover the common ground that once existed when people saw themselves as part of nature and not outside of it. The destiny of whales cannot be separated from the destiny of man, and the destiny of man cannot be separated from the destiny of all of nature. I am exploring new narratives that help build a bridge across the artificial boundaries we have established between ourselves and other species”. (1)

(Think about this statement, which is ultimately his goal for the viewers, as you view the photographs and videos)


All of the subjects in the photographs keep their eyes closed and usually there arms crossed unless they are reaching out. Colbert wanted to level the field between man and beast, saying he wondered “what it would be like to look out of an elephants eye” (Image 1)

(Image 1)

Many of the photographs seem like they are from a utopia, very dream like. The tree that seems to have appeared, while the elephants trunk acts as another branch. Colbert has a non-hierarchal vision of creatures, trying to remind us of the wonders of the natural world. (Image 2)

(Image 2)

Colbert posed in many of the photos himself, including this one. He is swimming with sperm whales, which are carnivores and known as dangerous creatures. In the image you can see he is not swimming with any type of breathing apparatus, which would scare the whale. (7) Colbert said it was vital for him not to be afraid or cause fear. They were in open water and used giant speakers to attract the whales. (Image 3)

(Image 3)

He used members of indigenous tribes to pose with the animals. But what is unclear is the fact of whether these subjects would interact with animals usually in their daily life. I also read that he went to a school in Sri Lanka and picked models then used those specific models in the photographs but had them travel with him.(7) (Image 4)

(Image 4)

Colbert tries to open trust in the interactions with the animals. He let them act how they wanted to – focuses on the interior of the animal as well as their physical presence. He said he worked on “elephant time” which basically meant waiting for the animal to react instead of making it react. (Image 5)(1)

(Image 5)

The poses I find to be very interesting because I understand the concept of the eyes being closed but I also think the poses are very non-threatening and almost look as if the subjects are dead. (especially here with the hyenas) (Image 6)

(Image 6)

The animal human coexistence comes across in these photos so well because the viewer starts to forget there is a difference. No matter what kind of animal it is, they almost become one. In each photograph the animals seems to either have no idea the subject is there or simply enjoy that they are. (Image 7)


(Image 7)

The artworks have umber and sepia tones which were part of a distinctive and expensive encaustic (which is using pigments mixed with hot wax – used) process which was a very popular process from 100-300 ad. All of the photographs were inlayed on handmade Japanese paper, and each work was approximately seven feet by twelve feet. (3) (Image 8)


(Image 8)

This last one I thought was very interesting because you see the animal wrapped up and being held which is not seen in any of the other photographs. The animal not only seems very willing but part of this created metaphorical family. (Image 9)


(Image 9)



None of the photographs had titles, captions, or commentary because the whole idea is to encourage an emotional rather than intellectual response.


The idea of having videos on repeat is interesting because its almost proof that there is no trainer for these animals and that it took ages for the photographs to be taken. It shows that these are not so manipulated but I think there are definitely images omitted for the audiences benefit. He obviously chose not to include the times the tigers were not happy that a young girl was sitting next to them. (1)

Laurence Fishborne saying over and over again “Flesh to fire, fire to blood, blood to bone, bone to marrow, marrow to ashes, and ashes to snow” – which was taken from the letters that are on display. There was a novel that Colbert wrote where it was a fictional relationship from a husband writing a letter every day for a year to his wife. This chant was very off putting to viewers, but it mesmerized others. (4) This chant had a very religious tone to it, which brings me to discuss the actual structure the exhibition as held in.

Nomadic Museum

He said he wanted the structures to be modern day cathedrals. The magic of cathedrals is that they are so beautifully built and they’re gigantic, they are dark with some majestic light shining through. They are larger than life, and then everything that is inside begins to shine through with a whole new lense. In this context Colbert uses the space itself to push the audience to almost worship the photographs.

Colbert’s first showing in Venice was exhibited at the Arsenale, which is near the water as The Arsenale used to be a huge shipyard and the heart of the Venetian naval power. (2) Colbert repeated his fascination and appreciation with the waterfront in each exhibition while trying to open the viewers’ eyes to the purity and source that is the simplicity of water. (1)(Image 10)

Venice 2002 (Image 10)

In New York the structure was built from recyclable and reusable materials, shipping containers for the walls and paper tubing for the roof and columns (5) Pier 54 is a historical and gigantic pier by the Hudson River. I visited Pier 54, which is where the structure was built in 2005, and there was definitely this peace I felt in that area. I experienced this wave of history and a kind of human connection that once existed there. This unique emotion is one that Colbert was definitely looking to conjure up in his viewers, before they entered the exhibit. (Image 11)

New York, 2005 (Image 11)


New York, Pier 11. 2014

New York, Pier 11. 2014

The Santa Monica exhibit was next to the Santa Monica pier on the beach, which is not only a tourist attraction but a historical pier as well. Colbert described this as a “conversation with the Pacific Ocean”. (5)(Image 12)


Los Angeles, 2006. (Image 12)

This nomadic museum was sited in Odaiba, an island located on the Tokyo waterfront. It was built from the same materials as the New York and Santa Monica structures. (2)(Image 13)

Tokyo, 2007 (Image 13)

The last exhibition is very different in structure and location. In Mexico City, the structure was built in the Zocalo, which is the main square in the heart of the city. The entire structure was built of bamboo (and it’s the largest bamboo structure ever built) but Colbert actually lined the inside of the formation with small canals, to bring back the essence of water that actually used to surround and fill this part of Mexico City. (2)(Image 14)

Mexico City, 2008 (1)

Mexico City, 2008 (Image 14)

The project as a whole has welcomed over ten million visitors, which made it the most attended exhibition by any living artist in history. Roberta Smith of the New York Times said “you would barely think twice about these photographs if you saw them framed under glass in a Chelsea art gallery. They’re too derivative.” (6) Which is a statement that I believe is a part of a very important observation about the exhibition has a complete project. It is apparent that the photographs may not have been able to exist alone as just images, they can only be important when they exist in the environment of the nomadic structure. It however was a very popular show, it was advertised to the limit and there was a huge hype surrounding it. Even though it wasn’t clear if the photographs were manipulated in any way, it didn’t matter for the buyers. The original prints were priced at $160,000 – $180,000, books went from $50- $300 and tickets were $15. (5)


The location and structure itself brings out all these emotions, which allows for the viewer to carry them as they are looking at the actual artwork. All features of Colbert’s installation has the same goal of evoking an innocent sensation that rids all preconceived ideas and opinions of these animals and replaces it with an absolute certainty that a coexistence between animal and human is natural and possible. I believe the photographs were definitely manipulated not in terms of art but in terms of emotions and conclusions caused by the installation (exhibition). Colbert as an artist attempted to strip his project of all media, and leave the audience with just the image. This practice is used for him to get his message across but is also utilized for the larger purpose of changing a cultures perception by dissolving the technologies and media involved in the work itself. Some questions I believe are important for the readers to ask themselves and others are as an audience is it okay for us to be pushed to believe that a natural coexistence can be made between the human and the animal? And because the message is a virtuous one can it be okay for us as an audience and a culture to believe in this message a perspective due to a false and staged connection that may have been created by the artist? These two questions arise in many conversations that occur on the topic of animal vs. human and I believe the conversation should never end but instead develop and change throughout time.

Work Cited

  1. “Ashes and Snow.” Gregory Colbert. Gregory Colbert, n.d. Web.
  2. “Gregory Colbert Press Kit (PDF).” Gregory Colbert. Gregory Colbert, n.d. Web.
  3. Katayama, Hiromi. “World of Washi Newsletter.” Hiromi Paper International. Hiromi Paper Inc., n.d. Web.
  4. Hanifen, Bob. “L.A. Letter: Ashes & Snow at Nomadic Museum.”Gridskipper. Vox, 17 Jan. 2006. Web.
  5. Williams, Ann K. “Santa Monica News Ashes and Snow™ in Santa Monica.”The LookOut News. N.p., n.d. Web.
  6. Smith, Roberta. “ART REVIEW; When Nature Becomes a Looking Glass: A Tour Through the Exotic Elsewhere.” New York Times. N.p., 12 Mar. 2005. Web.
  7. McGuigan, Cathleen. “Animal Magnetism.” Smithsonian. N.p., June 2005. Web.

All images taken from / gallery and exhibition of works section


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