Volume 74, Number 44 | March 09 - 15, 2005

Visitors take in the exhibit.

Nomadic elephant exhibit opens on a pier

By Divya Watal

Now that the time of plastic poles and saffron sails has passed, the gates have flung open to welcome a new artistic and architectural marvel: a museum made of shipping crates, with flying pachyderms housed in it.

The Nomadic Museum, a 45,000-sq.-ft. space on Pier 54 across from the Meatpacking District, opened its doors to the public last Saturday. The museum, made entirely of steel shipping containers and recycled tubes, will display artist Gregory Colbert’s exhibit, “Ashes and Snow” — with a preponderance of surreal photographs of elephants — until June 6. The exhibit is part of a novel wave of artistic creation that blends external structures with internal artwork.

“I think the exhibit is magical – It’s a new era for the combination of art and custom-made architecture,” said Megan Boody, an artist who lives in Tribeca and was visiting the Nomadic Museum on its opening day.

Boody, like dozens of other first-day visitors, thought the atmosphere and structure of the museum — designed by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban — was in a strange state of harmony with Colbert’s images.

The 199 large sepia photographs hanging by wires from the ceiling appeared phantasmagoric in artificial, dim yellow light. It was cold, both inside and out. And the frozen visitors received little psychological warmth from the silver-grey pillars bolstering the black ceiling or the 148 corrugated shipping containers that formed the walls. Buddha Bar-type beats and chants — melodious but eerie — wafted through the rectangular hall.

Cut off from the sunny, Hudson River pier outside, visitors were made to feel an almost spiritual connection with Colbert’s subjects. Monk-like children and god-like elephants paid homage to each other. Elephants transmogrified into sea creatures. A man danced underwater with a whale-like mammal. A dark bird hovered over a child in a fetal position. A woman sensually clung to the phallic trunk of an elephant.

These images, and more, transported visitors to a parallel, yellow-brown pigmented universe, where men, women, children and animals seemed to meditate together, trying to touch upon a greater understanding of life.

“Just when you think he has reached the limit of his imagination, he surprises you,” said Richard Lukin, a Chelsea resident, looking at a giant screen at the end of the museum’s hallway. It was showing Colbert’s 35 mm film, a moving version of his still photographs, with similar images of elephants, humans, deserts and seas.

Visitors sat on circular wooden seats in the darkened alcove entranced by the hour-long film. Actor Lawrence Fishburne’s deep, mellifluous voice periodically enhanced the images with lyrical narration like, “The waves do not sing because they have an answer. They sing because they have a song.”

“It’s captivating,” Lukin said. “There’s a sense of reality outside that you don’t want to revisit when you’re in here.
“This beats Christo,” he added.

Of course, the comparison between Christo’s “Gates” and “Ashes and Snow” was inevitably made. After all, the river of saffron that ran through Central Park until a week ago is still fresh on the minds of New Yorkers. An essential element in the aesthetic perception of “The Gates,” like Colbert’s “Ashes and Snow,” was the character of the surrounding area.

Some visitors were, however, confounded by the meaning of Colbert’s images, even though they appreciated the unity of the museum’s structure and the art inside.

“It’s definitely an amazing presentation — the atmosphere, the music is great, but we’re undecided about the artwork,” said Ted Gividotti, an Uptown resident, who was accompanied by his girlfriend, Sarah. After paying an admission price of $12, they were perhaps not too happy about their ensuing confusion. The price is pay-as-you wish every Tuesday from 11 a.m. – 3 p.m. The museum’s hours are 11 a.m. – 7 p.m. Tues. – Thurs., 11 a.m. – 8 p.m. Fri. and Sat. and noon – 5 p.m. Sun.

The Nomadic Museum occupies space managed by the Hudson River Park Trust, a joint state-city agency responsible for building and operating the park. The museum has rented the pier for three months and is paying $300,000 for it, according to Chris Martin, the Trust’s spokesperson. Martin told The Villager last month that there had been no objections from the community to this artistic addition to the Meatpacking District.

Al Butzel, president of Friends of Hudson River Park, a non-profit advocate of the park, said since the museum is temporary, he did not have concerns about charging admission to a pier.

“It was the right thing to do at this particular time. No one was using the pier,” he said. Future events, however, will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis, he added.

The Nomadic Museum and Colbert may have been fortunate in getting this ostensibly perfect artistic space — simply because it is winter time, and the pier was empty. It remains to be seen whether the shipping-crate museum is capable of coupling with another artist’s mood, or whether an entirely new structure will be erected in its stead. Or, perhaps New Yorkers will have recovered from their Christo-esque, art-architecture-combo fascination by then.

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