When Colbert originally conceived the idea for the Nomadic Museum, he aspired to create the first 21st-century museum for nature—a place where nature is celebrated, a place where animals have a voice, a place where walls become doors that open our senses to the music of nature. Gregory Colbert’s Nomadic Museum is a purpose-built temporary structure used to house his traveling Ashes and Snow film and photography exhibition. Just as Colbert’s films and photographs depict a world without hierarchy between species, a place where there is no “other”—the Nomadic Museum also aims to be inclusive, not elitist, a democratic expression of the wonder of nature that is accessible by visitors of all cultural and social backgrounds.
To share his photographs and films, Colbert imagined a structure that could easily be assembled in ports of call around the world, providing an ephemeral environment for his work. He envisioned a building that would be the architectural equivalent of open arms, a place that would welcome rather than intimidate visitors, and would emerge seamlessly from the world of the images themselves. The Nomadic Museum resolves the disconnect that often exists between an artist’s work and the environment in which it is presented.
Colbert first presented Ashes and Snow at the Arsenale in Venice, Italy, in 2002. With his debut, Photo magazine declared, “A new master is born.” It was described as “extraordinary” by the Economist, and “distinctive . . . monumental in every sense” by the Wall Street Journal. Stern magazine described the photographs as “fascinating,” and Vanity Fair named Gregory Colbert in its “Best of the Best.” The New York Times, in an article by Alan Riding, stated, “The power of the images comes less from their formal beauty than from the way they envelop the viewer in their mood . . . They are simply windows to a world in which silence and patience govern time.”
Ashes and Snow opened in the first Nomadic Museum in 2005 in New York City. The Nomadic Museum then traveled to Los Angeles, Tokyo, and Mexico City. It is charted to migrate around the globe with no final destination.
“A stupendous museum brimming with poetry, from which you will no doubt come away with a remarkable sensory experience.”
The most recent Nomadic Museum, in the Zócalo, Mexico City, was the largest bamboo structure ever created. The architect Simón Vélez designed the Mexico City Nomadic Museum, which utilized bamboo as the primary structural element of the building. Colbert designed unique interior architectural features that included suspended bamboo columns that floated above canals that lined the galleries. The roots of the bamboo were inverted in the structure so that they pointed toward the sky. Colbert has often said that the Nomadic Museum had its roots in the sky and the bamboo columns were meant to reflect that intention.
The Zócalo is the third largest square in the world and the most iconic in Latin America. It was the center of Mexico-Tenochtitlan, a city founded by the Aztecs on a small island in the middle of Lake Texcoco in 1325. For the first time, the Nomadic Museum incorporated water as a design element to recall the unique history of the Zócalo, which was once surrounded by canals.
“Tokyo is such an artificial space that we who live here can gradually lose the sense that we still inhabit the natural world. When we come to the Nomadic Museum, however, we are reminded of the feelings man must have had while living with nature. The museum is a space where we can reconnect with who we really are.”
Asahi Shimbun Newspaper
The Tokyo Nomadic Museum was sited in Odaiba, an island located on the Tokyo waterfront. The Tokyo installation was a kind of homecoming for Colbert who had long worked closely with Japanese handmade paper makers for his original artworks. He had also collaborated with renowned cinematographer Koji Nakamura, who filmed the underwater scenes in which Colbert himself is the subject. The Ashes and Snow film was narrated in Japanese by Ken Watanabe.
“There is no clash of species in Ashes and Snow; it is a world in which man and animals peacefully co-exist, living in each other's dreams.”
Los Angeles Times Magazine
The Nomadic Museum in Santa Monica was a conversation with the Pacific Ocean. The structure incorporated many of the features and design elements of the New York Nomadic Museum while adding distinct smaller theatres to show two new short film “haikus” at the end of galleries on either side of a large central theatre.
“His astonishing pictures—sepia and umber in tone . . . documented the whole caravan of beauteous creatures who had passed before his magic lens . . . For all its apparent sobriety, this is an ecstatic space; as for the installation, it is Zen . . . It’s like a Rothko chapel writ large.”
Wall Street Journal
Ashes and Snow was displayed in New York in the first the Nomadic Museum. In the late 20th-century the architecture of Manhattan had turned its back on the waterfront. In hosting the Nomadic Museum on Pier 54, The Hudson River Park invited the city to turn its gaze back to the river and its piers. The first of its kind in the world, the Nomadic Museum was composed largely of recyclable and reusable materials—used shipping containers for the walls and paper tubing for the roof and columns—demonstrating sustainable practices and an innovative architectural approach within a post-industrial environment. The New York opening marked the U.S. premiere of Ashes and Snow, Colbert’s personal and artistic odyssey.
“There is no way to accurately translate the English word ‘bliss’ into Italian. Yet it's this word that precisely explains the exhibition Ashes and Snow.”
The debut installation of Ashes and Snow at the Arsenale in Venice, which opened in 2002, inspired the architectural concepts used in the design of the Nomadic Museum. In the 15th century the Arsenale was the biggest ship building yard in the world. At 600 meters in length it has cathedral-like proportions. Colbert’s exhibition occupied the Corderie, the Artiglierie and Gaggiandre—an unprecedented use of almost 125,000 square feet of space dedicated to the work of one artist.