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Arts Canadian artist Gregory Colbert's photographs are the subject of a giant exhibit in Venice. And you probably haven't heard of him, writes SIMON HOUPT

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Probably the scariest moment for Gregory Colbert was the time a sperm whale almost ate him. "This young male tried to take me by the head," explains the 41-year-old Toronto-born artist, sitting peacefully in his East Village studio.

This was about five years ago, off the Caribbean island of Dominica. The whale, it seems, was echolocating Colbert, that is, bouncing sound waves nearby to "read" him. Whales usually echolocate at a polite distance of about 15 or 20 metres from whatever object they're reading. When they echolocate one or two metres away -- as they do with their common prey, giant squid -- that's not so polite: They're engaging in a frankly preprandial stun.

"That was my first concrete realization that I was the potential lunch, basically. Sushi, whatever," explains Colbert.

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Of course, he was also unnerved -- not to mention injured -- about a year later, when an aggressive Burmese elephant threw him out of a lake on the tip of its tusk. Colbert later learned the animal had already killed two people. But as he recalls these incidents, he speaks in the compassionate tones of an artist who understands the sometimes deadly motivations of his subjects.

"It's a very rare occurrence," he cautions, speaking of the whale's behaviour. "I think he was just feeling his oats." And that elephant? Colbert shrugs. With his long face and lean body, ponytail, delicate hands and soft brown eyes, he could be a monk, albeit one with a four-day stubble. "It's like human beings. There are some bad people and nothing we could do would change that. This elephant didn't want to be Scheherezade in 1001 Nights, he didn't want to know about enchantment. He wanted to be the alpha male."

These are the kinds of stories we expect to hear when man and beast intersect. Animals are dangerous, unpredictable, uncivilized. Our very language prejudices us to these convictions, with references to "animal nature" and "animal behaviour." Commercial culture also confuses matters, throwing up cutesy anthropomorphic images, from photos of William Wegman's Weimaraners in collars and cuffs to "Hang in there, kitty!" posters to sweet-talking cows pitching steak sauce. Colbert wants to show another aspect of animals' behaviour, the sort that comes when you spend a long, long time with them and don't push them to do circus tricks. Elephants dance, he says. Whales in motion are visual poetry. Cross-species communication exists. We just need to listen and be still.

To that end, in Venice last Sunday he unveiled Ashes and Snow, an exhibition of images and photographs unprecedented in both scope and scale. Covering 12,600 square metres, it is billed as one of the largest one-man shows in the history of Europe. It fills the four buildings of the Arsenale, a grandly decaying Renaissance-era site that once housed a prolific shipbuilding operation and is now overseen by the Venice Biennale.

Ashes and Snow contains hundreds of images printed on swaths of handmade Japanese paper, big as picture windows and suspended in mid-air. Two canals snaking through the Arsenale form a liquid canvas for projected images of whales and manatees, while other projections, of eagles and falcons, appear on the roof and walls of the cavernous space.

The images are stunning. A young Tibetan boy reads to a placid, kneeling elephant that seems enchanted by the child's story. A man and a sperm whale dance an elegant pas de deux. Two children in monk's robes stand on either side of an elephant, leaning into the animal's generous body and cupping their ears in an evocation of eternal stillness.

Colbert's work feels timeless and sacred. It resonates with a luminous, essential wisdom speaking through the ages.

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First-time viewers of his photographs invariably are stunned. They are like children at a first snowfall, giggling uncontrollably at a gift from the heavens. They grapple for an understanding of what they see, for a precedent, for a vocabulary of similar images, even as the pure physical beauty of the pieces washes over them. Almost as quickly, they try to figure out the trick. Surely these images are computer-generated. How else to explain animals and humans interacting in such an intimate, relaxed, friendly -- and unfamiliar -- manner?

But these images are genuine photographs, forcing a realization that strips us of our reflexive, technologically superior smugness. Colbert's work operates in a parallel universe to ours, an earnest, refreshing, postironic world where pure wonder and awe still reside.

The story behind Ashes and Snow could make anyone drop their cynicism. In his 20s, Colbert made films about social issues, including a critically acclaimed 1988 documentary about the AIDS crisis that a Globe and Mail critic called, "perhaps the most provocative and wide-ranging discourse on AIDS yet filmed." The film aired in many European countries, but not in Canada. The CBC turned it down, explaining it had already produced volumes of programming on AIDS. The rejection helped sour Colbert on what he sees as the reluctance of Canada to invest in and support its young artists.

Based in Paris by that point, Colbert turned to fine art. He applied to various Canadian funding bodies for support on his next project, a series of triptychs executed with internationally recognized artists including theatre directors Heiner Muller and Robert Wilson, filmmaker Wim Wenders and painter Francis Bacon. He was turned down, and he never applied for money from the Canadian government again.

When his work showed in Switzerland and Japan in 1992 in an exhibition titled Timewaves, he attracted the attention of some very well-heeled collectors. Among them were Michel David-Weill, the chairman of investment bank Lazard Frères; Joyce Ma, the CEO of Hong Kong retailer Joyce Boutiques; and Luca Bassani, the head of luxury boat-builder Wally Yachts.

"I went to his apartment, went there without knowing anything," recalls Joyce Ma over the phone from Venice, speaking about the evening she met Colbert eight or nine years ago in Paris. "He slowly showed me his work and I fell into meditation altogether there. I started to cry in his apartment, and I was silent. I was totally silent."

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Colbert calls Ma and the others, "my pachydermic guardian angels."

They became his indulgent patrons, present-day Medicis ponying up millions of dollars over the course of 10 years as he pursued his vision.

On 27 expeditions, Colbert traveled to Burma, Tibet, Egypt, Sri Lanka, Dominica, Tonga, Thailand and the Azores, photographing humans interacting with elephants, sperm whales, sacred ibis, cranes and falcons. He introduced percussionists and trance dancers to elephants and watched them all dance together in a lake. He travelled into the Pagan region of Burma, bringing elephants into the temples for photo shoots.

His backers sometimes came along for the ride, turning the trips into a sort of Outward Bound-goes-to-art-camp adventure. Joyce Ma was a third assistant in Burma, forgoing her usual privileged station to cook elaborate meals for the crew. (Colbert uses a small crew, occasionally having assistants snap the shutter.)

Though his patrons head some rich and powerful companies, Colbert insisted the names and logos of those organizations would not appear in connection with his work, and he reveals their identities now only with great reluctance.

"I think corporate sponsoring -- there's a lot of great things in culture and film and sports that are sponsored, but sometimes -- and I would love to take their money, because I could spend it to do a lot of things -- but it's a Faustian bargain," he says. More important, "elephants don't vote, whales don't buy cars, and it's worse than a sellout" to use their images for such purposes. "It's completely against the spirit of the project," he says.

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"One of the things I like about working with kids and monks and elephants is that they're not cynical and they're never ironic, and I don't want to be cynical," he says.

When Colbert embarked on the project, he had no sense of where the finish line would be, what it would look like when complete, how long it might take. He took off on what he likens to a bird path, since birds leave no trace in the air when they fly. For almost a decade, he was rarely in one place for more than three weeks.

"We spent 2½ years going to sea to do the work with the whales. We didn't know, there was no basis to say: This is how long it'll take," he explains. "I'm not being self-indulgent, it takes the time it takes. If you stress when you're working with animals, if you stress them, if you push them, you'll have nothing."

Ashes and Snow is intended as the first in a continuing series of exhibitions known as BiAnimale that will alternate with the Venice Biennale. Every two years, an artist exploring the interaction with man and nature will be chosen to receive the financial and logistical support of a foundation Colbert and his backers have created. The idea is to bring people toward a new understanding of animal behaviour and man's role within the animal kingdom.

"The party tricks have been explored with animals up the wazoo. Stuff with Disney, the circus," Colbert says. Pondering the thought, this is the only time he appears weary. "But the actual collaboration, if you think of an orchestra -- and we always see ourselves as the main players, but actually we're a very small part, there's all kinds of other languages, and without being touchy-feely and having crystals on your table, I mean there really are -- when you go to a watering hole in India, there's all kinds of different animals that congregate." Colbert often rambles, as if he is trying to squeeze the last 10 years of his life into a couple of hours of conversation. "We used to be doing that, we didn't used to be having this kind of species apartheid, so this is what I'm interested in exploring.

"It's the antithesis, for example, of somebody like Audubon. I saw a quote recently from him, he said, 'It's not a good day in Florida unless I've shot at least a couple of hundred birds.' "

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He is not an environmental extremist, a member of those he cheekily calls "the Khmer Verte." "A lot of environmental issues are not black and white," Colbert says. "The idea of BiAnimale is a bridge."

In addition to the photographs, Ashes and Snow includes a one-hour film projected at the end of the Arsenale. The film follows a narrative of a man who, like Colbert, retreats from the structure of everyday life. One year after his disappearance, his wife begins to receive letters he has written to her, 365 letters in all. (The origin of the title Ashes and Snow is revealed in letter number 364.) A book of the letters will be published next year, as well as a monograph about the exhibition Colbert is writing.

Though it is showing at Ashes and Snow, the film isn't yet finished. Colbert plans to do that next year, when he heads to the Antarctic for four months to work with emperor penguins. He's a little bashful about this, because he was just saying that after 10 years of being an artist of no fixed address, about to turn 42 years old, it might be nice to settle down, maybe buy a chair or two for his Paris flat. There's even a new gal in his life, a woman working with refugees in Dar es Salaam. But the road calls.

"The Japanese say, 'If you want to write about the pine, you must go to the pine,' " says Colbert. "As Charlie Parker said: 'If you don't live it, it won't come out of the horn.' " Ashes and Snow continues at Venice's Arsenale until July 6.

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