Gregory Colbert's Ashes and Snow is an ongoing project comprised of photographic artworks, a one-hour film and two short film “haikus,” and a novel in letters all presented in a purpose-built temporary structure called the Nomadic Museum.
Colbert’s images, visceral yet dreamlike, return us to a place we long for but cannot name. His photographs and films reawaken an ancient memory in us of a time when we lived in balance with our animal kin. Since we first painted their silhouettes on the walls of caves 35,000 years ago, animals have inhabited our stories, our dreams, and our imaginations.
Since he began creating his singular work of Ashes and Snow in 1992, Colbert has undertaken filming and photographic expeditions to every continent to collaborate with more than one hundred species around the world. Colbert, who calls animals "nature's living masterpieces," photographs and films both wild animals and those that have been habituated to human contact in their native environments. There is no digital collaging. The images record what he saw through the lens of his camera. While Colbert uses both still and movie cameras, the photographic images are not taken from the film.
His original Ashes and Snow photographic artworks marry umber and sepia tones in a distinctive encaustic process on handmade Japanese paper. Each work, approximately seven feet by twelve feet, is mounted without commentary to encourage an emotional rather than an intellectual response to the images.
An elephant does not see his trunk as merely a nose. It is also a trumpet. Colbert believes people tend to see cameras only as a device to take photographs. He sees cameras as musical instruments that can be played by the human eye.
The feature film was edited by two-time Oscar winner Pietro Scalia. It is narrated by Laurence Fishburne (English), Ken Watanabe (Japanese), Enrique Rocha (Spanish), and Jeanne Moreau (French). Musical collaborators include Michael Brook, David Darling, Heiner Goebbels, Lisa Gerrard, Lukas Foss, Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, and Djivan Gasparyan.
The title Ashes and Snow refers to the literary component of the exhibition—a fictional account of a man who, over the course of a yearlong journey, composes 365 letters to his wife. The source of the title is revealed in the 365th letter.
Ashes and Snow first opened at the Arsenale in Venice, Italy, in 2002. The Nomadic Museum, the traveling home of Ashes and Snow, debuted in New York in 2005 and then migrated to Los Angeles, Tokyo, and Mexico City, and is charted to travel the globe with no final destination. Ashes and Snow has welcomed more than ten million visitors to date, making it the most attended exhibition by any living artist in history.