February 29, 2004

The White Stuff


A piece by Morphosis + Do-Ho Suh at the ''The Snow Show.''

Slide Show: Ice Capades


There is not much to do in Finland's Lapland in winter. Kemi, a port city at the northern end of the frozen Gulf of Bothnia, has a Snow Castle that includes a hotel where tourists can sleep on slabs of ice; 90 miles to the north on the frozen River Ounasjoki, Rovaniemi is gateway to Santa Claus Village, where letters can be mailed to the old benefactor in his hideaway on the North Pole.

"In summer, we fish and make love," one Laplander deadpanned. "In winter, we fish less."

But an unusual outdoor art exhibition called "The Snow Show" has briefly added Kemi and Rovaniemi to the circuit of destinations for adventurous art tourists eager to brave subzero temperatures. Earlier this month, mysterious multicolored sculptures of snow and ice began rising from the frozen landscape. Then, as natural and transient as their setting, the works of art will begin to melt and be gone by early April.

For the next four weeks or so, though, they should stand proud. They come in all shapes and sizes, some abstract, some figurative, but the key variable is their material. Those made of snow are interesting mainly for their geometric forms because, at least from afar, packed snow looks as ordinary as white concrete. Happily, most works have used ice, which exudes an effortless translucent beauty, at times radiating a soft pale green, at other times evoking a shattered window pane.

Yet even when the outcome is less than successful, there is something fresh, almost nave, about many sculptures. One reason, no doubt, is that in each case a leading artist was twinned with a celebrated architect to create a specific work, prompting a fair amount of brainstorming. But another is that most participants were trying their hand with an unfamiliar medium. In fact, apart from, say, ice mermaids on cruise ship buffet tables or the round forms of Kemi's Snow Castle, making art with snow and ice has almost no track record.

While the art is ephemeral, the show's organizers are after more permanent results. The Finnish government and tourist officials who are managing "The Snow Show" see it as a novel way of publicizing winter travel to the edge of the Arctic Circle. To cover the cost of the event, the organizers found government and commercial sponsors willing to contribute roughly $1 million. They are now counting on at least 25,000 paying visitors (a ticket to one site costs $6.25, to both sites $10).

On the other hand, Lance Fung, the New York art dealer who came up with the idea and was hired as the show's chief curator, would like a more original legacy. Already, he believes the show has spawned technical and artistic breakthroughs in what can be done with snow and ice. But more daringly, he hopes to demonstrate that artists and architects can work together in an environment, on a scale and with a material alien to most of them.

Even so, it takes some imagination to accept the nine works in Kemi and the eight in Rovaniemi as constituting a genuine art exhibition. The construction material is of course unorthodox, but the form also frequently obscures the message. And in at least two cases, the structures are large enough to suggest buildings rather than installations. At best, perhaps, they remind an observer of a group show in a frozen sculpture garden.

But something else distances the works from traditional art. The artists and architects may have conceived and designed the works, but it was a taciturn Finnish ice engineer called Sappo Makinen, helped by local builders and 120 international student volunteers, who actually made them. In fact, at least half the participating artists and architects may never see what they imagined. And most who attended the opening days, Feb. 10 and 11, were seeing their works for the first time.

Still, in the main, they were pleased with the results, adding final touches or watching with delight as crystalline forms emerged from the wooden casts that shaped them. Only the British artist Anish Kapoor had an unhappy experience. His "Red Whale," which he created with the London-based firm Future Systems, was a large hollow structure the color of raspberry sorbet. Holes were punched in its five-inch-thick ice "skin," through which interior lights would shine at night. In theory, that is. Hours after the piece was completed, it imploded, apparently weakened by the heat that the lights generated.

Mr. Fung, 41, who seemed as much cheer-leader as curator, made the best of this setback by reiterating a favorite point: that this is an experiment in human dynamics as well as new material.

"Curatorially, I see the show is about collaboration," he explained on the opening day in Kemi. "Artists agreed to be partnered with someone they did not know from another field. They agreed to develop a piece without knowing what we could execute, to engage in an experiment, even to be satisfied if the structure cannot be completed, because the show is about the process."

Mr. Fung's first challenge, though, was to find artists and architects interested in engaging in what is traditionally a somewhat skewed relationship: many architects also think of themselves as artists (and like to exhibit their drawings, paintings, sculptures and collages), but few artists think of themselves as architects. Further, architects usually work for clients; most artists enjoy greater independence.

Could the competing egos coexist?

"I only knew artists but no architects," said Mr. Fung, who has a gallery at 537 Broadway in SoHo. "I spent a year culling 1,000 artists and 300 architects. I sent out letters and was surprised by the response. But how to partner them? I had been warned who wouldn't work with whom. In the end, most said, `It's your project, partner me as you see fit.' They wanted to work with someone talented who would challenge them."

Judging by the results, however, it is apparent that architects dominated most of the collaborations. For Rovaniemi, for instance, Zaha Hadid, a London-based architect, designed two large mirrored landscape formations, one in shimmering pale green ice, the other in snow. Her partner, Cai Guo-Qiang, a Chinese-born pyrotechnical artist (who shook Central Park last September), had no role in the design. Instead, he set fire to parts of the structure in an action called "Caress Zaha With Vodka."

Even larger is "Iced Time Tunnel," a striking semicircular tunnel designed for Rovaniemi by the architect Tadao Ando and the artist Tatsuo Miyajima, both from Japan. Mr. Ando provided the ice tunnel, while Mr. Miyajima added the time element with 70 counter gadgets that display nonsequential numbers from one to nine representing life (and when no number appears, Mr. Miyajima explained, zero, darkness and death).

Also in Rovaniemi is a work called "Lanterns of Ursa Minor," in which three young Finnish architects Helena Sandman, Jenni Reuter and Saija Hollmen borrow from the tradition of ice lanterns (in which candles illuminate frozen "vases" of ice) to create five large ice cylinders that can be entered like capsules. Their American partner, the conceptual artist Robert Barry, who did not travel here for the opening, simply provided five words carved into the ice: Real, Meaning, Possible, Desperate and Expect.

Similarly, in Kemi, the Greek architectural firm Anamorphosis designed a small cut-away amphitheater of ice and snow called, somewhat grandiosely, "The Morphic Excess of the Natural," while its partner, the Irish artist Eva Rothchild, added large crystals of ice. Lighted up at night, the work is quite magical. Night lighting is equally effective in transforming "Obscured Horizon," rectangular slabs of green, blue and white ice created in Kemi by the Mexican architect Enrique Norten and the American conceptual artist Lawrence Weiner.

"It wasn't interesting for me unless I remained an artist and he remained an architect," Mr. Weiner explained. "Enrique agreed. We began corresponding, sending pictures. I am interested in the horizon, he is interested in monolithic forms. I'm interested in the bonding process, and here we brought together two pieces of ice one clear, one colored. All buildings are sheathed that's what gives them an identity when facing the horizon."

In some cases, though, the artist provided the nut idea. For instance, for the structure that stands outside a restaurant on the Arctic Circle, Yoko Ono first proposed "Ice Jail," then substituted "Penal Colony." With this, her partner, the Japanese architect Arata Isozaki, was inspired to design an ice labyrinth, its pale green walls rising 32 feet above the snow. The extraordinary texture of ice, solid yet fissured, is again the star. (Neither Ms. Ono nor Mr. Isozaki attended the opening.)

The British artist Rachel Whiteread, who usually casts the inside of rooms or objects, much like negative images, is perhaps more acquainted with architectural forms than many artists. In any event, in her partnership with Juhani Pallasmaa, of Finland, it was the architect who, in his words, "thought the artist should make the first move."

"I invited him to my studio and he was very taken by the simplicity of what I do," Ms. Whiteread recalled. "I had a three-dimensional model of an actual stairwell in East London and it turned out that he, too, was very interested in staircases. I said I'd like to cast it in snow, not back-to-front as in some of my work, but on its side. He did the drawings, but I also realized you can't fight the material. I work in details a lot, but snowmen don't have details."

Two teams chose to use flat surfaces. Working with the California-based artist John Roloff, the architects Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio created a chessboard in the frozen sea at Kemi where they cut away 81 cubes of ice and filled each hole with 55 gallons of brand-name water, which promptly froze. Kiki Smith and the architect Lebbeus Woods created a frozen round pond that at night reveals shadowy figures hovering among streaks of light.

"I quite liked the idea that if it snowed, it would just disappear," Ms. Smith said with a laugh.

And soon, of course, everything will disappear.

Ideally, the gradual melting of these all too solid shapes should also be part of the show. But in practice, as soon as there is any danger of a tourist being floored by a lump of ice, the installations will be torn down.

For Mr. Fung, this is just the beginning. Having demonstrated that frozen art is viable, he is planning a new snow show in Switzerland next year and has been promised space at the 2006 Winter Olympics outside Torino, Italy. And thanks to publicity about the Finnish show, he is confident of wooing more artists and drawing larger crowds. But one question has still to be answered: as art, do snow and ice have anything else to say?

Copyright 2004 The New York Times Company