Created by acclaimed artists and designers from around the world, art and design in snow and ice from the untamed Torne River has been a distinguishing feature of ICEHOTEL in Jukkasjärvi since the start, more than 20 years ago.
"For us, art is at the heart of it all. Each year, some 250-300 artists from around the world express an interest in participating in the creation of ICEHOTEL. We are a team of veteran ice artists known as the ICEHOTEL Art & Design Group. Together, we select the artists. Their work is usually a blend of figurative and non-figurative, modern and traditional. What they have in common is the desire to express themselves in snow and ice and meet an international audience in Jukkasjärvi, 200 km north of the Arctic Circle," explains Arne Bergh, Artistic Director at ICEHOTEL.
ICEHOTEL is built in stages and the artists arrive group-wise at intervals. Now, during the final week before opening, all 50 are here. The building of snow and ice is bustling with activity and resembles an anthill. In the corridors, it is apparent that this is a building site. Here, happily occupied artists and technicians, each of whom is responsible for his or her small piece of the big project, share the space among ladders, planks, extension cords, saws, lifting devices, wheelbarrows, shovels, sleds and other equipment.
"Many different groups with many functions contribute to the realization of the ICEHOTEL dream. Some of the artists that are here have never seen snow and ice before, while others are old hands at this. It's a creative exchange, a dialogue about creativity and various techniques," explains Arne.
Over the years, the ice art at ICEHOTEL has continued to evolve. Realizing the sketches and ideas always presents new challenges. This leads to the invention of new tools and new building processes that make the work easier.
"Just imagine what it was like when we started. It was truly a pioneering project. Take the lighting, for example. We didn't have any electricity, so we only used candles to illuminate the art. It was attractive, but the heat and soot from the candles was detrimental. The expertise of the lighting group has helped us to come up with completely new forms of expression in ice and snow," relates ice sculptor Lena Kriström, who is here for her 19th consecutive winter.
This winter, together with Mats “Nille” Nilsson and Sofie Routsalainen, she is creating the spectacular hall of columns that runs throughout ICEHOTEL.
"The inspiration came to me on a trip in India last autumn. I found myself humming the Swedish children's song Indialand, by Lennart Hellsing. The narrative of the lyrics in combination with the fabulous temple architecture and nature conjured up a lot of images in my head. Like the magician, who was so thirsty he turned himself into a glass of juice and drank himself up. 'That's just like ICEHOTEL,' I thought, but the river drinks itself up when the whole creation melts each spring," explains Lena Kriström as she puts the finishing touches on an ice relief.
Together with the three artists, I wander among the impressive, 5 to 6-metre columns of ice, each crowned with an exotic capital and a bold relief at the base. We pause to admire a relief carved in one of the snow walls near the ice chandelier at the far end of the hall of columns.
"Look at this; a snake is wriggling across the snow and through the jungle, and an elephant is about to step into the hall of columns. It's nice to let these two worlds meet here," says Sofi Routsalainen.
"And creating all of this together has been really fun," adds Lena.
"Yes, and it went quickly. The hall of columns was completed in two weeks. It was almost anticlimactic when we were finished. The weather is partly to thank for that, since it was rather cold. We have also been acquainted and a part of this for quite some time."
They pose for the photographer by the ice pyramid, whose peak points up at the ice chandelier. Together, they resemble an hourglass.
"ICEHOTEL has a lot to do with time. The whole project is a reminder of the passage of time and that the art we have created is here and now, just for the time being, until the sun returns it to the Torne River some time in April or May," says a contented Lena Kriström.
All of the light is on the art
Koppla och Brinn AB reads the sign on the door to the lighting shed down near the river, where we join light design duo Julia Engberg and John Pettersson. Julia and John are from Stockholm, where they run a light design company called Inwhite. They are here in Jukkasjärvi for six weeks to consult with the artists on how to bring the ice art to life using the right lighting.
"This is our third year, and we would like to continue to return. In all, there are nine of us who work with lighting. We're here during the entire creative process, so we can talk to the artists about the effects they wish to achieve with their art. With our knowledge of lighting, together, we can bring out the magic in the ice, which is a truly amazing material. There are a lot of factors to consider: how the light flows through the clear ice; how light interacts with snow, and how light behaves in two conjoined blocks of ice. The whole atmosphere, the creativity and all of the challenges constitute a unique milieu that offers an opportunity to develop one's self and others. Just look around, here in our little work shed. This is where we make our magic and build all of the necessary components for the lighting systems," says Julia.
A visit to ICEHOTEL is a surrealistic experience that demands warm, comfortable clothing and plenty of time. From noon until 6 p.m. each day, the hotel becomes an art gallery where every suite has its own story to tell. Already, just a couple of days before the official opening, guests from afar are on location to witness the birth of ICEHOTEL.
One suite that creates a strong impression in this year's hotel bears the signatures of British art and design duo Ben Rosseau and Ian Douglas-Jones. Sci-fi nerds that they are, they present their take on the film Tron: Legacy, which premièred on 17 December, a week after the opening of ICEHOTEL. A cold, blue light vibrates in the room. You can almost hear an electronic buzz. Is it a spaceship, a vehicle that will transport me to another world and another time? I pause in the room until I am alone, close my eyes and wait. The minutes pass. Eyes shut, I hear the unmistakable swish of Gor-Tex clothing as someone approaches. Somewhat dazed, I hurry out into the corridor and on to the next world of ice.
A gigantic ball pond
In the soft, white, inviting Bubble Suite created by Dutch artists Edith Van De Wetering and Wilfred Stijger it is crowded. They are assisted by the snow-and-ice team as they helpfully lend a machine to artists working in the neighbouring suite.
"A ball is really a fantastic basic shape to work with. It's pleasing to see that my own invention, the Icespider tool, which placed second in a major design competition in Holland, is ideal for sculpting beautiful balls of snow and ice in two different sizes. The tool also works well in other temperatures and with other textures; namely, sand sculpting, which we do a lot of in many parts of the world," explains Wilfred.
In another suite we meet Jens Dyvik. He works diligently at building a complex labyrinth system of quadratic pieces of ice against the white snow walls. The pieces of ice are joined or, rather, glued together with water.
"My colleague pulled his back and is lying flat in bed. He can't be here to help. I have sawn 6,000 pieces by hand. I need another 2,000 to complete it. What do you think? Will I finish it before Friday?," wonders Jens.
The stress is barely concealed by his smile. He tells us about his work of art.
"We have named this suite the Dimensional Lounge. It's monotone art, since the shape is repeated again and again. Like a form of madness. The job, itself, is also monotonous. It's interesting how it wears one out, both physically and mentally. We were inspired by the classic domino board. We want to create a new form of expression," concludes Jens Dyvik.
Giving the cold a head start
Alf Kero strides briskly across the yard in front of the building site. Alf is the construction manager and is in charge of the actual building project, personnel and equipment. He works with architect Åke Larsson and artistic director Arne Bergh.
"Work on this year's ICEHOTEL actually began last winter, when we harvested the ice blocks that are now being fashioned into art by the visiting artists. This year we have also installed an 800-square-metre piping network, which helps us to freeze the ground. We haven't needed to use it, since weather conditions have been favourable this winter, with sub-zero temperatures as early as October. It was a record-early building start," says Alf.
In addition, sections of the corridor have been prefabricated. Alf Kero explains:
"We are constantly working to improve the efficiency of the building process. A big part of my job is to develop storage and logistics, to create even better conditions and to fine-tune the details. Prefab is a short cut. The finished corridor elements have been in ice storage all summer. That gave us a flying start when we began work in the autumn. By November 17th, the first guests were already staying in the part of the hotel that had already been completed. Normally, we don't open the doors until around December 10th," says Alf as he hurries off to his next task.
Not all of the artists have travelled from afar. Magdalena Åkerström, who lives in Kiruna, is sculpting in her suite together with Italian Alessandro Falca, also a Kiruna resident. The suite is called Ice Fishing. Here, guests are 'beneath the ice'; where a large hook hangs from the ceiling, waiting for the fish to bite. Right now, they are engaged in an intensive discussion as to how the seaweed that is taking shape will continue up through the ceiling.
"We must get help from one of the more experienced ice artists — Arne, for example," says Magdalena, touching up a fish with large ice globes for eyes.
We meet another local artist, Anna-Sofia Mååg, from Malmberget. She's building a suite at ICEHOTEL for the third time.
"This year I'm sculpting a female polar bear and two cubs." The huge polar bear watches majestically over the bed, protecting the sleeping guest and guarding her cubs. The constellation Ursus Minor (the little bear) sparkles on the ceiling.
Anna-Sofia Mååg is a ceramist who produces utility pieces in limited series, larger public commissions, and sculptures and installations. Both her work and her feel for the material have attracted considerable attention.
"The atmosphere at ICEHOTEL is unique. For a brief period, artists and designers from around the world gather here to create all of this. I've participated before, so I meet old friends as well as making new contacts. It's like a gigantic workshop where we come up with ideas and plan group shows together. The dialogue is ongoing and there's a lot of curiosity. We're curious about each other's work, we give each other advice, and the atmosphere is open and dynamic. There isn't any of the exclusivity or competitiveness that one experiences in other contexts," says Anna-Sofia.
"This year, for the first time, I'm staying for the whole season. I'll be instructing guests in ice sculpting. I am really looking forward to following the full lifecycle of ICEHOTEL and watching the living material as it is transformed and developed throughout the intensive period up until mid-April."
Morning meeting in Oktagården
We conclude our visit with a morning meeting in Oktagården, a tall, octagonal building close to ICEHOTEL. The tiny hall is crammed with big winter boots and winter clothing. Jammed into the small meeting room, some 40 frozen, red-eyed artists are huddled over steaming coffee mugs and generous sandwiches. Many have been working half the night and have already put in several hours, even though it is barely 10 a.m.
The snow-and-ice group leader, Johan Larsson, claps his hands for attention. Often, artistic director Arne Bergh leads the information meeting. Today, however, he has other duties to attend to. The murmur of conversation in every imaginable language subsides to a hush.
"I would just like to inform you that, today, there is no information," he says in English.
Everyone laughs and applauds.
Then, he reminds us of the farewell party that is to take place in two days. There will be food and drink at the local heritage centre. More applause and delighted cheers fill the room. What follows is some vital safety information concerning the importance of wearing helmets and protective clothing when working with dangerous equipment such as chainsaws. And, the Absolut ICEBAR opens on Friday. All present are welcome. He glances at his watch and continues.
"Right, let's get to it! The official opening is on Friday. As far as I can tell, we are on schedule and, together, we will have created the most beautiful and spectacular ICEHOTEL ever, just as we do every year."