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Monday, April 1, 2013

Ice Sculpture

A favorite at weddings, perhaps because
of the symbolism--swans mate for life.
A few days ago I mentioned in passing an art form which I had never written about before (there are getting to be very few such topics any more). There's an old joke aboard cruise ships about the woman who asked, "What do you do with your ice sculptures after they melt?" The answer to that may be, "Use them to water down the drinks, of course." All kidding aside, as I pointed out in writing about food sculpture (03-28-13), there has always been a close connection between food and this elegant, if fleeting, form of sculptural creativity. It's an art form that has to "die," towering over the buffet line in order to be appreciated. Although they are nearly ubiquitous aboard cruise ships, ice sculptures also accompany the more elegant wedding buffets, anniversaries, and birthdays once the years climb well into the higher double digits. They range in size from molded ice cubes (which really don't count) to mammoth extravaganzas limited in size only by their weight and how many men it takes to hoist them into position without creating an ignoble pile of crushed ice.

Harbin's Ice and Snow World--148 acres, over 2000 palaces, all built in just 14 days.
The history of ice sculpture dates back to the frigid realm of 17th century China to the province of Heilongjiang and the small fishing town of Harbin. There ice fishermen used to freeze buckets of water then remove the bucket and carve out a deep hole in the center in which they mounted a candle to create a crude lantern as a means of lighting their way to their favorite hole in the ice. This may be the oldest reference to "fire an ice" as well. Apparently it was cold enough that the candle didn't significantly melt the ice surrounding it. When Russia's Trans-Siberian Railroad hit town in 1897, Harbin became the home of it's own ice and snow carving festival. (Maybe I should write sometime on building snowmen.) Since then, ice carving festivals have sprung up in a long list of countries around the world, some of which are so tropical their duration may well be counted in minutes rather than days (there's one in the Philippines, for instance).

Ice is a bit easier to carve than marble.
If we limit our appreciate of ice sculptures to buffet table adornments and high speed carving competitions, we do the art form a grave injustice. There is also ice architecture (to support ice gargoyles, I suppose). The first such ice palace was commissioned by a Russian empress named Anna in 1740, complete with ice cannon firing ice cannonballs (what happens if a snowball fight escalates into an arms race). In 2000, Saint Petersburg built a replica of Anna's original ice palace, some 21 feet tall covering nearly a thousand square feet using ice blocks from the Neva River and then fusing them together (with hair dryers, perhaps?). Actually, ice sculpting tools range from small chain saws to rotary grinders, razor-sharp chisels, and even blowtorches. Not to be outdone by their Arctic neighbors, Sweden builds an ice hotel every year complete with icy beds, chairs, and of course the standard, run-of-the-mill ice bar, specializing in vodka. The room rate also includes lots of furry bedclothes.
Sweden's annual ice hotel--cozy, even a round bed. What, no ice bucket?


  1. Wow, these are amazing! It would take so much talent to be able to sculpt something like this. It would be so difficult to work with ice, so I can only imagine what it would be like to work with! Something would be fun to have at a company party, or even just a family gathering.

  2. Gwen--

    Thanks for your following and for taking the time to comment. Actually, working with ice is a good deal easier than marble. :-) The real talent is not in cutting the ice but in "seeing" objects three-dimensionally in the mind before making them real.

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