Art in snow

Each installation at the Snow Show in Lapland, the path-breaking art and architecture show, had a clear thought base

"Snow is a falling, added landscape; a landscape in excess; an animation of the natural landscape by itself; a simultaneous sense of nature and the artifice. A possible theatre of the excess of the natural form." — An artist at the Snow Show

The other day when I saw fine photograph of a small, fluffy heap of snow — luminous and evocative at the same time — taken by Surinder Dhami in Kufri not long ago, my mind travelled to the Snow Show: the path-breaking event was held close to the cusp of the Arctic Circle in Lapland some seven years ago. Dhami’s picture was not part of the show but it seemed to come from the same ‘falling, added landscape’ that some participants in the great show spoke of.

I did not see the Snow Show. I have never been to Lapland, not even to Finland to which it belongs. But everything I read about the show, and the images I saw, were truly intriguing.

For one thing, the idea of the show did not originate in Finland: it was the brainchild of a gallery owner in New York: Lance Fung. The Finland Tourist Board got readily drawn into the project. Two neighbouring cities, Kemi and Rovaniemi, agreed to provide the location. As many as 30 architects and artists from across the world were thought of for putting up a total of 30 ice and snow installations with the help of Finnish manpower.

An installation at the Snow Show. Finnish Lapland, 2004
An installation at the Snow Show. Finnish Lapland, 2004 

The artists and designers responded to the invitation not only readily but with a sense of enthusiasm, even excitement, for here was an opportunity to work in "fairytale latitudes, temperatures bordering on the intolerable and the magic of the long Northern European winter" that was to form the backdrop of the Snow Show.

A condition was attached: each structure to be built or created was to be at least 80 per cent snow and ice. And everyone naturally understood that whatever was created would have a limited life, for eventually everything would melt within a matter of months, if not weeks.

The list of artists and designers who came to Lapland reads like a who’s who: Egypt-born but New York-based architect Hani Rashid teamed up with the Finnish artist Osmo Rauhala; the Athens-based firm of Anamorphosis worked with the New York artist Eva Rothschild; Iraqi-British architect Zaha Hadid collaborated with the Chinese artist Cai Guo-Qiang. Participating also was Yoko Ono from Japan, besides Anish Kapur, the celebrated India-born sculptor living in England. It was a glittering gathering. The works they fabricated set the neighbouring towns of Kemi and Rovaneimi a-glitter.

What is fascinating is that each installation had a clear thought-base, which the artist teams spoke of or wrote about. Not having seen the show, and the photographs failing to yield the experience of what it must have been like to see them in the flesh, one can only rely upon the descriptions that have come down.

Frozen Forms, Kufri, 2011.
Frozen Forms, Kufri, 2011. Photograph by Surinder Dhami

According to one writer, thus, Tadao Ando, whose structures work "with large curves and organic domes made from glass and different types of skin", simply constructed a parabolic Iced Time Tunnel of "ice blocks impossible with ‘normal’ bricks, but the translucent bow looked like a radiant jewel" in the Snow Show collection. Yoko Ono created what she called a ‘Penal Colony’: an ice maze within a ‘prison compound’ in which visitors were encouraged to carry candles, the implied thing being the ‘meltability’ of mental confinement. Eva Rothschild constructed an amphitheatre sculpted out of an artificially created snow hillock with its "cascade of ice shards spilling over compressed snow bleachers".

Another twosome integrated ‘large slabs of ice treated with different pigments, injected with anti-freeze or moulded with plastic sheeting to allow the ice to harden in unusual shapes according to its own physics’.

What seems to have worked best, according to a critic, was the work of the Tod Williams group, MeetingSlides: a whorl of channels twirling through deep-packed snow, slides that viewers were encouraged to enjoy in a ‘container of experience’. The most spectacular of installations, however, was the Zaha Hadid led group’s untitled monument, which was also the largest work created on the spot: ‘a gigantic Arctic ocean liner of dead-end canyons with yawning overhangs, curvilinear ziggurat terracing and varying degrees of transparency in the freezing’.

What made the object even more spectacular was the performance that went with it. On the opening night, her partner Guo-Qiang decided to ‘caress Zaha with vodka’. He and his assistants, according to an eye-witness, ‘poured crate-loads of vodka into channels dug into the upper surfaces, set them alight and let the blue and gold flames illuminate the night sky’. The blazing fluid wrought its own distortion on the ice blocks, ‘causing loud cracking sounds to emanate from deep within’.

There is an air of eerie surrealism in all this and sheer scale, but one can imagine that the show must have been truly breathtaking. And to think that everyone participating in it was keenly aware of the fact that oblivion was a fate that awaited all creations, must have given the event a very special air. For the impermanence of ice, even at these Arctic latitudes, was going to be common to all those delicate constructions. Within a couple of months everything was going to be gone. And yet, the creators of these fairy-land objects spent weeks bringing them into being.

Why? And especially why snow? One of them responded thus: "Snow/ice is lovely, amazing and playful. There is a psychic dimension in such a playfulness. We like playing with snow/ice because it liberates us from the anxiety of presence or absence, the anxiety of perfection`85it is the material of collectiveness/sharedeness rather than ownership or belonging. Enjoyment and play rather than pleasure." It is not easy to argue with that.