Earlier in the day Malu and I visited The Nomadic Museum, a massive temporary structure covering an entire pier designed by architect Shigeru Ban to house the photos and a film by Gregory Colbert (Ashes and Snow). That’s all it will ever be used for.
Colbert, according to New York Magazine, “got the idea (and funds) for the museum after his one-man installation in 2002 at the Venice Biennale’s Arsenale, a vast shipyard dating from the Renaissance. “Ashes and Snow” was the first solo exhibit ever to occupy the entire space. And every last piece of art in it was bought up by the chairman of Rolex, who then encouraged the artist to use the money to mount the show — as is — in other cities. So, Colbert asked the avant-garde Japanese architect Shigeru Ban to design a museum large enough to travel with it.”
Predictably the NY art critics hated it — it was panned and disdained — but the people come in droves. There is almost always a line, especially on weekends, and there must be some word of mouth bringing people in, because there are none of the arts section covers that usually hype an event of this magnitude — unlike The Gates, which was hyped to the max.
Here’s the temporary building under construction:
And an artist's conception of the inside — pretty accurate, too:
It does indeed inspire a sense of awe, induced by the massive scale of the building and the images of elephants and whales consorting with humans. The new age music that plays inside kind of puts the nose on the clown.
Malu was amazed at first, then soon began a guessing game — How did he get the elephant to do that? Was that landscape, with a perfectly flat horizon, Photoshopped? (answer: yes) How does the man (Colbert, doing some “modern dance”-type aquatic ballet) hold his breath underwater so long? (the camera people had a tank ready for him to take big gulps of air was my guess.) Why is everything in slow motion?
Malu also initially asked if he simply took these pictures of existing situations and peoples. A beatific young boy with a shaved head rests his head, eyes blissfully closed, against a docile elephant. A woman in a white flowing robe walks through an Egyptian temple as a hawk swoops over her shoulder. I think that initial impression of documenting a preëxisting place and people is intended, that we are meant to think a little bit that these things did happen and that in some exotic far-flung locales humans and animals happily coexist. That Colbert simply searched these places out and then photographed what he saw. That the world shelters amazing things beyond the civilized world.
Malu began so seriously doubt this “authenticity” after a bit. She sensed the situations were arranged, set up and even sometimes photoshopped. She didn’t completely understand why the sepia still photos looked like they’d been smudged, smeared or painted.
She was mesmerized then eventually bored by the film (a lot of scenes seem to repeat) but many people were rapt and stayed for the whole hour before it looped around.
Colbert seems quite the messianic type — the need for a whole building/museum, the hushed, worshipful atmosphere. And placing himself in many of the scenes. This extreme romanticism and self-exaltation is somehow disturbing to me. On one level it could be seen as a celebration of the wonders of nature and life on earth. Cavorting underwater with the whales and manatees looks like fun — I wish I was there — but his attitude and posture seem more than a little Christ-like. Maybe I’m just another arty cynic. If we can, after the passage of time, “appreciate” the romantic awe-inspiring work of Leni Riefenstahl — whose images, from Nüremberg to the Nuba, are now seen by some as beautiful in and of themselves and divorced from their service to the Nazis — then why not this? Aren’t they more or less the same?
and again of a romantic ruin:
The interior of the museum:
And Leni’s stadium lighting:
Now, I’m not saying Colbert is a closet Nazi. Just pointing out many stylistic similarities (there are more congruencies, but I can’t locate the images.) Does all romanticism lead down the road to fascism and ruin? I think not, but it does seem to work in reverse — extreme nationalism, fanaticism, the feeling of a manifest destiny — have in their pasts a romanticization of history, culture and nature. And to merely find this attitude lurking behind evil, well, does that really imply that it was the cause of the evil? Not exactly. If that were true we’d have to check ourselves every time we took in an inspiring scenic vista or gazed in awe at amazing structures and lifeforms. Gazing at the Grand Canyon would be outlawed in case it fostered fascist tendencies.
Went to see the documentary Enron: The Smartest Guys In The Room. As the movie was about to begin I heard a young man behind me say to his date, “the reason the teachers didn’t like me was because they all knew I was smarter than they were.”
How appropriate his attitude would be for this movie, where Greed is good, survival of the fittest and free market economics were the guiding “ethical” principals for the Enron set and their traders. As we watch the heinous behavior and complete lack of ethics and morals of this bunch we wonder, “how can people do this, behave like this, destroy other people, lie cheat and scheme and justify it to themselves?”
(I’m currently reading books about dictators as well as Vollmann's tome on violence, so the question comes up a lot.)
The filmmakers attempt to answer that question by including some clips and information on the Milgram experiment, a series of psychological tests done decades ago. In these tests the test subject was required by a “scientist” to help an unseen person learn some phrases by administering small electric shocks when the unseen person got the answer wrong. As they got more wrong answers the “scientist” instructed the subject to increase the voltage. The point of the test was to see just how far the subject would go before ethics and morals would kick in and they would refuse to harm the invisible person.
As it turned out, people go depressingly far before stopping. The invisible subjects would be screaming in simulated pain (no real shocks were administered), begging the subject to stop, while the “scientist” urged use of increased voltages. Many subjects “killed” their invisible students, partly because they could say they were just doing their job, that the scientist was obviously an “expert” and maybe partly because the person was unseen — though the screams could be heard.
The inference is that, yes, as the Greeks and every other civilization knew, left unbridled (deregulated, free market) and given some quick reward — Enron execs and traders made fistfuls of money — people will destroy one another and social order will quickly crumble. One might say that the collapse of Enron, WorldCom, Tyco and others proves that the market is working. Tell that to all the little people who lost their life savings.
I think it shows that deregulation and free markets are an excuse for bullies and unethical types to swindle as many as they can — and that while too many regulations stifle creativity, too few encourages people's worst instincts.This is not Nature at work. Not even animals get to behave like this for very long. There are checks and balances in the wild that rein in extreme behavior. Only viruses and plagues seem to run unchecked for lengthy periods.