Wednesday, May 03, 2006

No Ashes, No Snow. No Cigar.

We had long postponed going to see the blockbuster art show, "Ashes amd Snow," Bush, featuring the film and photography of Gregory Colbert--any relation, I wondered, to the infamous Stephen? We had heard such mixed reports, Ellie and I, from various sources, that we questioned the value of devoting a precious afternoon to the venture. Reports ranged all the way from ecstasy to outrage. Fearing that we might miss something important if we listened only to the intellectual art elitist snobs, we girded ourselves and tanked up the car at vast expense for the trek down to the Santa Monica Pier.

And now I regret to have to report that you must count me, Bush, amongst the intellectual art elitist snobs. I thought it was dreadful. Oh, there was no shortage of beauty, to be sure. It was everywhere in evidence, from the pretentiously named "nomadic museum" that housed the show to the photographs and films installed within. The museum was a vast, magnificent construct of rusting shipping containers (as "walls") and oil barrels (as "columns")--its cavernous, dark interior a very beautiful, contemporized homage to the natural inspiration of those ancient Egyptian temples where the towering columns evoke great, underwater forests.

The grand inner spaces were permeated by the self-consciously "spiritual" tones of New Age music, wafting down from every direction in the upper reaches of the gloom. The viewer was invited to walk down the long aisles of this secular cathedral, surrounded on each side by enlarged photographs of, yes, extraordinary beauty--photographs of the exotic animals and birds of this planet in all their glorious natural elegance and grace; and often, blessed by their presence, the figures and faces of human beings of comparable beauty and grace, Africans and Asians in languid or contemplative, quasi-Buddhist costumes and poses, entranced in the aura of impeturbable serenity that embraces all living beings, both animal and human. In exquisite slow motion, the films portray them in dance- (or trance-)like sequences, underwater, or drifting in primitive canoes through the jungle.

Leopards, elephants, marmosets, baboons--all wonderful creatures in their own right--are shown here in a paradise "peaceable kingdom" where leopards nuzzle their human counterparts with sensual adoration, baboons nibble lovingly at their arms, and where birds spread their wings to lend angelic beatitude to their serenely innocent human partners. Everything is, in a word, beautiful. No question.

Listen, Bush, I won't even dwell on the sentimentality of this exhibit, or the cute, condescending anthropomorphism of its portrayal of wild life. What really gets to me is its fundamental dishonesty. I for one like my beauty weighted down with just a little bit of truth, and everything in this show is, in my judgment, profoundly untruthful. Take the title. "Ashes and Snow." It might seem trivial or persnickety to point out that there are no ashes in evidence, no snow in sight. It's just a nice, alluring phrase that evokes, perhaps, a sense of impermanence and purity. Is it silly of me to want to find some greater relevance in the show to the title that brings in the crowds?

But this trivial example is symptomatic of a far deeper and more disturbing untruth. The true relationship between humans and animals in the modern world is regrettably very far from what we see here. The reality is that humans, in their ever growing numbers, are destroying the habitat of most of our fellow creatures and threatening their very existence. Those who love this show--and there are many--may argue that this is a representation of an idealized relationship, how things could be, and should be, in a world where the spiritual unity of all things embraces the comradeship between human and animal creatures, and that what we experience is the sacredness of all things in their ideal state.

Fair enough. I would not wish to deprive anyone of their pleasure. For myself, however, the sacred is as deeply connected as beauty with the real and the true. A steady, unblinking, unhumanized gaze on nature is worth more to me than a staged or fantacized beauty. Watching the underwater ballet of two lovely humans, their bodies entwining in acts of etheral love, I found myself wishing uncharitably for the sharks to arrive. They never did, Bush. They never did.

10 comments:

Fred said...

My response to the exhibit was largely positive. I loved the cavernous space itself very much. The day I was there the sound and video was not working, so I was spared any "new age" music. I also accepted the photos as presenting that "ideal" state, a representation of the connnectedness of all things. I grant you that a "truer" picture of our relationship with the beasts would have shown the orangutans being barbecued on spits and the leopards being flayed for their hides. But, we can dream can't we?

PeterAtLarge said...
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PeterAtLarge said...
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PeterAtLarge said...

Fred, forgive the two previous removals. Nothing rude it was just that I had a computer guy trying to get my new mchine sorted out and he typed in a bunch of yada, yadas! Anyway, yes, I do see your point of view. I know there are many good people who would entirely disagree with me. For me, though... well, the kitsch predominated. Best of everything, PaL

David said...

I haven't gone to see the photo exhibit, though I have driven past it on the way up PCH to volleyball. The show itself may be kitsch, but the stack of shipping containers makes a beautiful museum. Reminds me of Christo.

PeterAtLarge said...

Okay, beautiful. But see my take on beauty in what I wrote. And Christo, okay, partly, if you think of his stack of oil cans (Paris, early 60s.) But Christo's trademark is to get a whole community working with him on a project that is truly interactive with the environment. This piece, it seems to me at least, is more of a plop monument to one man's ego that could be planted anywhere--so long as there's enough space for it. At the same time, it's too vast and imposing a superstructure in my view for the superlightweight contents. My two bits.

dennis said...

Such shows are entertainment and live or die by that measure. They have nothing to do with art really.

David said...

Peter, I agree w/ you that the Christo thing was not a perfect comparison. I worked w/ him installing the Umbrellas, and as you mention, one of the most compelling aspects of his work is the community involvement.

But I do think the shipping crates accomplish something that Christo's work also does, in that by altering a familiar place it makes us look at it anew. It also brings up an interesting issue about the relationship between packaging and contents, and in my case made me think about how that relates to other museums. I had seen the billboards around town (at first I thought they were Visa ads), and had no desire to go see the show. So when I passed the shipping cartons on my way up PCH, I was aware of the fact that those heavy packages contained something very lightweight. Probably not the artist's intention. Still, is the Getty much better? Except for Robert Irwin's wonderful garden, it seems that the conspicuous packaging has more weight than most of the contents.

Trinidad said...

I enjoyed seeing the show. I found the building magnificent, the beauty of the images extraordinary and what most impressed me was the beauty of the humans . I was a bit uneasy with the relationship between the human and the animal kingdom but then I started thnking about how fantastic it must have been to organize that exhibit. First just travelling to find places to photograph, then finding the humans and the animals that would be the main characters, then spending time in what seems to be a paradise, doing their job. Interacting with a new community, training the animals ,letting their fantasies go wild in their imagery. This is the first time I see us so close to animals except of course in the days of St. Francis and other Saints. A container had to be found for the exhibit, a giant turtle, a roving museum with its own art exhibit. How many times have you seen an exhibition that travels with its own museum? I have never seen this. If the price I paid to see this magnificent show was a bit of uneasiness over the relationship between man and animal, it was very well worth it. Maybe we need to look at our relationship with the animal world and the whole world, for that matter, from a different perspective, where closeness of what seems unnatural is not bothersome, but rather just a different or new way of seeing which might open us to a new and greater awareness of our universe.

PK said...

Never saw the exhibit, nor would I be interested:). I am one of those that believes we are taking too much away from our animal friends as it is. Now their dignity. They are meant to be wild, not licking the cheek of some fair maiden because they were 'trained' to do it. Want to think of humans interacting with animals, think Tarzan with Johnny W.. No houses, no asphalt, no tele lines, no nothing!!! Let's get real. It's all someones fantasy at best. Anything to turn a dollar, with no reality involved.... hmmm, sounds familiar...Bush :)?