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FROM THIS EPISODE

Snake Oil from a Travelling Art Salesman

Even if you are not an art aficionado, you have probably already heard about or even seen an unusual exhibition, which opened on the beach near the Santa Monica Pier about ten days ago. Over the years, this spot has been used by Cirque de Soleil, which introduced the American audience to its very own brand of magic. One could see the bright stripes of the Big Top from far, far away. For the last few weeks, passersby have been wondering at the unusual structure being assembled on this very spot with the help of cranes and massive forklifts. Could it be an imposing movie set for an upcoming Star Wars sequel?

Constructed of several hundred recycled metal shipping containers, this imposing and surprisingly elegant structure, designed by Japanese architect Shigeru Ban, serves as the temporary home for a multi-media extravaganza, known as "The Nomadic Museum," presenting an exhibition of photographs and videos by Gregory Colbert. Last year this exhibition was seen in a similarly impressive structure on a Hudson River pier in Manhattan. Talking to a number of people during the gala opening, I didn't encounter a single person who was not impressed by the exterior and especially the interior of the Nomadic Museum. The massive shipping containers, in spite of their prosaic nature, have been transformed by the architect into a pliable material to build a modern version of a soaring cathedral.

The space inside this temple is divided up by dozens of columns made out of cardboard tubes. Over 100 very large black and white photographs are suspended between these columns on metal wires. Otherworldly music is piped into the dimly lit space, where spotlights are trained with remarkable precision onto each of the photographs to a maximum theatrical effect. The subjects of Gregory Colbert's photographs and videos, continuously shown on a large screen, are wild animals and beautiful people, swimming, dancing, and, on occasion, exchanging passing embraces. The faces of innocent children and beautiful, exotic women are presented in a state of rapture. Their eyes are closed as if they are in blissful communion with not only the wild animals but with each other and with the universe. At the end of the tiring day, wouldn't you like Mr. Colbert to tackle you in bed and whisper his lullaby into your ear? You shouldn't be surprised to see his dreamy images used as the background for expensive, glossy magazine ads for, let's say, Chanel No. 5--hmm, actually it's already used for a Rolex campaign.

If you buy into the sincerity of C--line Dion singing through her tears in front of a sold out Las Vegas crowd, then you will adore Mr. Colbert's black and white photographs. If you are bored with the routine of your life and inclined to go on retreat to various ashrams---full body sensual, aromatic oil massage included---then you will find that Mr. Colbert's images of animals and people speak to you and will probably even liberate your inner child. And if you are inclined to open your hearts and wallets to the rhetoric of TV evangelists like Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell, then you may belong to the army of suckers always eager to buy snake oil from a travelling salesman. Rumor has it that Donna Karan and various Hollywood celebrities are shelling out up to $100,000 per image. If Mr. Colbert, with his genius for marketing, could be persuaded to become head of a film studio, he would undoubtedly give Michael Eisner a run for his money.

Gregory Colbert: Ashes and Snow Nomadic Museum
Architecture by Shigeru Ban
Santa Monica Pier
Through May 14

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