After spending three months speculating about the mysterious shipping crates stacking up on the side of Pacific Coast Highway, just north of the Santa Monica Pier, I wasn’t going to let the persistent rain, being late for a lunch date or having to pee really badly stop me from taking a detour to the opening day of Gregory Colbert’s “Ashes and Snow” exhibit. Fresh off its wildly successful New York tour, the exhibit is an ambitious traveling show of more than 100 large-scale photographs and three 35mm films Colbert shot over the past 14 years while roaming the world. And while the collection itself is worthy of terrific praise and attention, it is the structure that houses it — dubbed the Nomadic Museum — that warrants all kinds of fuss. Designed by architectural genius Shigeru Ban, the 56,000-square-foot itinerant gallery looms tall and proud — a graceful feat of progressive architectural brilliance constructed of more than 150 steel shipping crates and a minimal assortment of recycled materials, including wood, paper and ?tea bags.
I stood off to the side on a pile of slate-gray stones, watching poncho-wrapped parents and rain-booted children dart excitedly between photographs of exotic animals in exotic locales interacting with exotic people, printed in black and white on large strips of canvas dangling from the rain-pelted ceiling. Music filled the enormous space, along with the gentle hum of curious throngs who seemed delighted to be surrounded by Colbert’s inspired images and to take shelter in the Zen-lovely structure.
The museum is divided into three wings. Large movie screens hang at alternating ends. A surprisingly silent crowd remained still for an eternity, plywood-topped paper cylinders serving as seats, with eyes glued to the screens. Birds of prey soared above a twirling beauty in an Egyptian temple; monks frolicked in and around a crumbling monastery as elephants bowed humbly in the wings; a ponytailed man with enviable lung capacity somersaulted beneath an undulating sea among impossibly enormous whales; a sleepy cheetah lounged inches away from a puffy Burmese nipple sprinkled with windblown desert sand and relaxed in otherwise preposterous proximity to a predator with a taste for puffy pink protrusions, especially those of the warm-blooded variety.
A pixie in polka dots squealed in toddler delight as she watched an obviously anxious ocelot teeter on the edge of a wooden boat guided downstream by a slender brown hand. We all oohed, we aahed when an excitable baby elephant danced an ecstatic, if clumsy, jig with a soaked and sari-swathed beauty writhing waist-deep in a murky river.
And then a strange furry thing appeared onscreen. My friend leaned over and whispered in my ear.
“It’s a lemur.”
“It’s not a lemur,” I countered. “It’s a tapir.”
And while I could have spent the better part of January in those recycled wood and paper wings, debating the tapir-ness of the lemur, my bladder would no longer take no for an answer.