Building the ‘Mind the Gap’ Art Suite: week 1
Each year the world-famous Icehotel accepts applications from artists around the world to design the hotel’s stunning art suites. Construction of the 24th Icehotel started in November 2013. In the 150th anniversary year of the London Underground, British film director Marcus Dillistone built his “Mind the Gap” Art Suite depicting a Tube platform in ice.
This is week 1 of his daily diary of the build…
Day 1 – North & Stuff
In my case, travelling always involves travelling with ‘stuff’. When I see business types entering the terminal with just their bijou carry-ons, I am envious. I dream of ‘carry-on-only’ trips. These people have perfected the art of travelling light, plus they have occupations (and destinations) that allow it.
But when you’re heading north, and I mean seriously north to arctic climes, the ‘stuff’ you need seems to get exponentially bigger: take a serious parka, some cold weather trousers and a proper pair of boots, and there’s a suitcase-full right there.
If one is also planning to photograph and film, then the ‘stuff quota’ grows exponentially. What’s more, ‘stuff’ can’t just be stuffed into a bag the morning of departure, hell no! This ‘stuff’ needs lists, exhaustive lists. Whilst the main ‘stuff’ is fairly easy, camera, tripod, microphones, etc., the devil’s in the detail: it’s a missing cable, memory card, adapter or power supply that can screw up a shoot royally, especially if one is in a remote location.
Icehotel is in such a location, so my journey there, to create and photographically record the art suite that I am building, starts many weeks before departure: planning, list-compiling, testing, checking, double-checking, packing and ticking boxes. Endless checked boxes are what it takes to get to the airport with everything you need (guaranteed), even down to tooth picks!
I love the cases I use, they’re waterproof, dustproof, they float, you can really rely on them to protect the gear, and they also happen to look ‘the business’ in a ‘form follows function’ way that is pleasing to a designer.
Saying ‘au revoir’ to them at the bag drop is a pivotal moment in the journey, because I can then, for an all-too-brief period, imagine that I am one of those liberated folk with just their carry-on bags.
Unless you’re fortunate enough to fly from London to Kiruna direct with Discover The World, the journey to Kiruna in Arctic Sweden involves two flights: London to Stockholm, then Stockholm to Kiruna. With tight connections there’s inevitably a slight nagging doubt that the bags will keep up (but they did!).
The second flight is the serious north bit, heading pretty much full-on compass north. In 2010, when I drove from London to Kiruna, Stockholm was only half way, that’s how big this country is!
After take-off from Stockholm’s Arlanda Airport it quickly gets darker, even though it’s only mid-afternoon. It is soon dusk, and then the moon ‘rises’ heralding the long Arctic winter nights that are in-store for the next few weeks, when the sun will barely rise above the horizon.
It is three years since I was last in Kiruna, but it feels very familiar. The single storey airport building is relatively tiny and homely. Snow is spinning, swirling and drifting across the runway. For the first time my goose feather filled parka ceases to be hand luggage, and can now assume its true role. When disembarking down the steps onto the crisp snow it is like the town has come out to greet you. There are no following landing lights in the sky, no stacks, and no hurry up. The lone baggage conveyor is no longer than 15 metres.
This is a frontier town, and from here north is Europe’s last great wilderness. This – for a while at least – is now my home and place of work.
Day 2 – Reality Sets In
There comes a time on any project when it moves from ‘thinking about it’, ‘sketching it’, and ‘chatting about it’ into production. Some projects slide seamlessly into the creation stage, but Icehotel is not one of them – once you’re there on the ground, it is full-on to the finish, there’s no doubt that one’s off-and-running.
Arriving at the first 9am production meeting is reminiscent of a first day back at school, recognising and greeting old faces and meeting new people, all together in one extraordinary place to make a unique project a reality.
The ICEHOTEL site is large, there is a good 40cm layer of snow on the ground, and the numerous evergreen trees have a dark dusty blue-green hue. There are various ‘proper’ buildings dotted around, including an ice store, reception, and a workshop. Across the road to the village there is also a restaurant, the basement of which is the venue for meals and production meetings. This is an amicable combination as one can eat and catch up with what’s going on simultaneously.
I took along a folder with visuals and plans for the Mind The Gap suite (laminated to ensure the survival of the document in this environment, beyond the first 24 hours). Following the briefing, I had a meeting with my build partner Magdalena, and the support crew who will provide technical assistance.
We’ll need their input as my suite design has a number of technically demanding features, such as the arched roof of the tube train that must be fashioned from ice, and then coated with a white freeze-bonded mix of snow and ice known as ‘snice’! We pore over the drawings and consider the best way to proceed. It struck me that the expertise around the table is truly unique.
Afterwards, walking back to the frozen river-bank, site of the ICEHOTEL build, I noted that work had commenced on the ice bar, where vodka cocktails will soon be served in ICEHOTEL’s signature ice ‘glasses’. For the bar’s arched entrance-way they’ve adopted the classic keystone structure. This is a technique that we will use on Mind The Gap, but in a different way – the ice keystones will be hidden from view providing structural support only.
Ice is heavy, it weighs a tonne per cubic metre, so the roof of the tube train in Mind The Gap will be in the order of two tonnes (I am guessing it’s considerably heavier than the similar-sized roof of a real tube train), so it must be constructed to last until the hotel closes and melts away in the arctic spring (May 2014).
When arriving in one’s designated suite for the first time, it looks rather bleak and empty. There are flat end walls, arching sidewalls and a roof. The massive arch-shaped formers have been withdrawn, leaving a 4.5 x 6.5m space with rough compacted-snow walls, a lamp, a wooden toolbox, and some of the crystal clear ice blocks that were ordered in advance (off-plan).
This space is a blank canvas that must, in a relatively short period of time, become a Northern Line tube terminus! This is the moment when reality sets in – all of the thinking, planning, sketching and discussing are over. There is just one way ahead: the physical realisation of the idea. The ICEHOTEL opens on December 7th and people are booked in to stay in this suite, so failure to complete is not an option. Such deadlines have a familiar ring to them – I worked on an Olympic Opening Ceremony (Athens 2004), where every team member knew that without fail, at three seconds to eight, on an immovable date in the future, four and a half billion people would be tuning in expecting to see something very special.
For Mind The Gap, the first step today was to transfer the plan to the actual space using steel pegs to mark the tube train’s layout. Fitting everything into the suite in a way that will work photographically is the key for me. It is a very tight space, so every element of the design must be positioned precisely… i.e. in shot!
My reference for this is a particular wide angled-lens that I will use to record the finished installation, a 14mm Fuji prime lens (i.e. a non-zoom lens with a fixed focal length) mounted on an X-Pro1 professional stills camera. This beautifully designed lens will provide the ‘window to the world’ for everyone who will not be fortunate enough to visit ICEHOTEL and see the suite in person.
Having now spent an exhaustive day in the space, measuring, pacing and adjusting, tomorrow is the day when we’ll need to ‘lock-down’ the design, so that we make the best use of the ‘time and space’ reality that we are now in.
Day 3 – No turning back
I remember a rather loud, brash, and TV ‘savvy’ General announcing to his assembled troops (and for the obvious benefit of the cameras) that there was no turning back; it was ‘hammer time’!
Well, the peaceful Arctic village of Jukkasjärvi (home to ICEHOTEL), has a ‘hammer time’ all of its own. This is when summer plans must finally become a winter reality, and 2D ideas become 3D in quite an epic way.
There’s an old military saying to the effect that “proper preparation prevents poor performance”. Well, after making sure that the suite’s layout and construction methodology were the best possible compromise, I think we exhausted the ‘proper preparation’ bit last night. I subsequently drew up a revised plan that slimmed down the walls of the ice tube train to balance structural integrity with a more svelte and elegant aesthetic.
Everything at ICEHOTEL has uniqueness to it. Sure there are similarities between ideas, and with what has gone before, but there’s always a new twist to everything, so each suite has its own distinct challenges, especially at the outset.
Hammer-time for me is when the first blocks of ice are delivered to the suite. You can hear an ice delivery coming from way off. There’s a distinctive high-pressure sliding sound accompanied by a few grunts, and interspersed with mixed instructions in Swedish and English.
Today’s half tonne block of ice needed to be navigated at a brisk pace (by necessity), down narrow corridors, around some sharp turns, and ultimately into the suite, through a doorway little wider than the slippery sled upon which it sat. At this point I must introduce the real heroes of ICEHOTEL – the members of the Support Team; the strong, smart, good humoured people who can make all of your problems go away.
My own experience of the ICEHOTEL Support Team goes back to 2010, and my first suite. It was called ‘Frigid Dare’, and guests slept inside a gigantic fridge. Frigid-Dare was built with assistance from my partner Alina Palimaru, a PhD researcher, who soon also became a snice fabrication expert. Thankfully it was a successful and popular suite. That suite required a few particularly huge blocks of ice, some weighing up to two tonnes each. About two weeks into that build I realised I was missing a massive block that was required to create the footboard of the bed (modelled as a gargantuan open sardine can).
Just as I was expecting an imminent delivery of the final massive block, the ICEHOTEL’s PR lady arrived and introduced me to the 2010 Nobel Prize-winning economist Peter Diamond, a distinguished academic who, along with his wife, was seeing the best that Sweden had to offer, which, at that particular moment, was my ICEHOTEL suite under construction.
As I congratulated Peter on his award, and we chatted amicably about ice carving, I could hear in the distance the distinctive sound of ‘big ice’ on the move, at speed, and with a purpose.
At that point my suite was pretty cluttered, and the Nobel Prize-winner, his wife and I occupied the only piece of clear floor space. It occurred to me that this piece of open floor was also the final resting place designated for the ice that was, I could clearly hear, approaching fast.
I barely had time to suggest that we relocate, when bob-sleigh-like, the last piece of ice swung into the narrow entrance of the suite, driven-on by four extremely fit Support Team guys. They stopped the ice sled bang on target, but leaving the Nobel Prize winner and me intimately pressed together against a seven foot tall milk carton made out of snow, at which point I made some dreadfully lame joke about the economies of scale.
As it transpired, Professor Diamond was a good-humoured gentleman who has since kept in touch. He used some of my pictures to illustrate a talk he gave to faculty and students at MIT about his Nobel experience. I think the milk carton story stayed in.
I considered ending this ‘Hammer Time’ blog with a tenuous pun about hammers and the spring Thor (thaw), but decided that was a very bad idea. I will however include a picture of a big hammer set against the final drawing of the tube train elevation as transcribed onto the snow (snice) wall of the suite.
Day 4 – Togged up
As a kid, my benchmark for Arctic clothing was ‘Ice Station Zebra’, an old Rock Hudson movie in which an American submarine (skippered by Rock), surfaces through the arctic ice to recover some microfilm (standard cold-war currency), then the Russians arrive by parachute to do the same, and there’s a stand-off. It’s quite evident now that this was all filmed on a soundstage in Los Angeles, but as a young kid it had a certain magic to it. The Americans had classic style parkas with fur around the hoods.
Fast-forward a few decades, and I find myself once again in the real Arctic, where unlike on a sound stage, the requirement to keep warm is very real. Keeping warm sounds simple, and people frequently advise me to ‘wrap up warm’ (as though that hadn’t occurred to me!). But keeping warm in arctic conditions is more complex, it’s about regulating your body temperature.
If one only stands around aimlessly in arctic climes, then the good old ‘wrap up warm’ advice applies. But working at ICEHOTEL one has to keep warm by adjusting for periods of vigorous work, such as chiselling, shovelling snow, and moving ice, as well as for periods of rest (i.e. contemplating the next vigorous bit). Also, one has to go in and out of heated shelters, so throughout the working day temperatures can range from –40ºC outside, to –5ºC inside the ICEHOTEL, and way up to +20ºC when eating lunch.
Anyone will tell you that layers are the key. A ‘wicking’ base layer keeps one comfortable – cotton is the worst for this (I use Accapi Nexus). The middle layer (or layers) are less important in my view, as any comfortable insulator will do. Then there are the outer garments.
In my case I decided I wasn’t going to get cold under any circumstances, so I opted for a Canada Goose Resolute Parka, and a pair of down-filled CG bib trousers. The Resolute Parka is what Rock Hudson would have worn, had he not been in California!
When working inside the art suite at just –5ºC to –10ºC, the parka can be removed for periods of work, but then donned again when stopping physical activity and taking a break. It’s best to avoid sweating too much, so one should remove a layer during activity, then replace it to stay warm when the work stops.
Going outside is when this parka really comes into its own, and it can handle pretty much the lowest temperatures you can find anywhere on Earth. This makes it good for ice chain-sawing, an activity that produces vast amounts of sprayed ice mist. It’s best to protect oneself from this stuff because it is cold, sticky, and all-pervasive. It can (and will) get in everywhere if you let it!
There are three other vital bits of clothing: gloves, a hat and boots.
I have tried several different types of arctic boots, but the Sorel Glacier boots I am currently wearing are by far the most serious. They are temperature-rated down to -73ºC/-100ºF! That is incredibly cold, but they’re very comfortable to wear in any sub-zero situation, they breathe and have a felt inner lining that provides a comfortable environment. It’s really important that one’s fingers and toes don’t get cold; these extremities are often the first places to suffer frostbite. Taller style boots are also useful when in deep snow, because ankle boots can load up with loose snow that will then slowly melt and give you wet feet – which is not good.
Various types of gloves are used at ICEHOTEL: I use my CG gloves for general use, cold weather work gloves when moving the scaffolding or doing rough work, and then fur-lined rubber gloves when working with water. Water is used as a ‘glue’ to hold blocks of ice together: when poured onto a joint there’s a cracking sound as it freezes almost instantly. Thus water has to be collected frequently, and utilised quickly because it will soon freeze.
We lose so much heat through our heads that it is imperative to wear a hat. I have a merino wool beanie that’s a perfect insulator, and if it gets really cold, or if the wind picks up, I can always flip up my parka’s hood.
There’s a saying in Sweden that goes like this (roughly translated): ‘there’s no such thing as the wrong weather, only the wrong clothes!’
Day 5 – Tools of the trade
ICEHOTEL is ‘man-made’, in fact it is very much woman-made too! But what many don’t appreciate is that the build is an annual event, and that the entire structure melts away completely each spring, when the ICEHOTEL will be 100% gone.
Its transience is something you have to get your head around. For me it’s like a bunch of flowers: something to be savoured, beautiful for a time, but then gone.
Creating ICEHOTEL requires tools; some are instantly recognisable and commonplace in DIY stores, but then there are also many weird and wonderful implements for doing things that only ice artists ever need to do!
The supreme tool of ICEHOTEL has to be the ice chisel. This iconic tool has a special status amongst ice artists. It is revered, beloved and simple… a blade on a stick! But I do it an injustice. These thick carbon steel blades are sharpened so you could probably shave with them (though I suggest not!). The glistening blade is about 10cm wide and goes through ice like nothing else… and it is for ice only; using it to set about ‘snice’ – the solid snow/ice answer to concrete – is a common beginner’s mistake, and is a real ‘no-no’ because it dulls the edge (there are separate chisels for snice).
The ice chisel has a long handle that allows control over larger strokes, but it is also capable of fine precision carving too. The sound that this tool makes when pushed against ice is unique, and quite unforgettable. It is a pleasure in itself, and an almost addictive sensation!
The chainsaw is another key tool. They come in blade lengths from 30cm up to almost 2 metres. Yesterday I used one to cut into the wall of the suite to make the Tube train tunnel entrance. These specially altered chainsaws have blades that are adapted for ice, so they cut deeper than a wood version with each stroke. The chainsaw trousers add comedic extra bulk to one’s legs, but have a serious purpose (legs are useful after all!).
Some of the weirdest tools are the scrapers and the scratchers. They are custom-made and are available in a myriad of sizes and types. They’re very abrasive and (with a bit of elbow grease) can take rough snow and ice down to a more level surface. This is good for bonding blocks together (it works better when they touch), and it’s also good for providing a flat surface that’s ready for polishing. We will have plenty of these smoothing and polishing tasks in the coming two weeks, especially as we progress from heavy work to elements that require more finesse.
These abrading tools can also be annoying, they have a tendency to snag clothing to such an extent that I am sure they’re not wholly inanimate.
For fine finishing, we apply sandpaper on blocks or in sheets. Heat polishing using hot metal plates or hot air guns is also an option. This technique causes the surface of the ice to melt slightly and can give a fine glazed appearance.
In addition to special tools, we also use barrows to cart out the waste snow and ice resulting from carving and cutting, buckets to mix snow and water to make snice, and special pens that don’t (theoretically) freeze, and that will still mark walls at –10ºC (I seem to get through a lot of these).
The Mind The Gap suite’s tunnel-like roof needed a rough texture, just like a tunnel gouged out of rock. My colleague Magdalena set about the roof with a large sharp V-shaped cutting tool that gave the surface a rough but machine-hewn look. That’s not to say Magdalena is a machine, but she set about this task with gusto.
In my previous suite, Frigid Dare (2010/11), the roof and walls needed to look entirely different, like the smooth plastic inside of a fridge. Then my partner Alina spent many days on scaffolding smoothing and polishing the surface, filling holes, removing uneven bumps and re-polishing until it looked just like a moulded fridge interior. It was no mean feat and a major undertaking, so it’s good that this time a different and slightly more readily created finish was warranted.
Mind the Gap will still require lots of fine work and careful finishing in the coming two weeks. But, whatever the tasks and technical challenges ahead, experience tells me that with ice fabrication on this scale, one always has to be ready to take the rough with the smooth.
Day 6 – Deadlines…deadlines
ICEHOTEL opens on December 7th, that’s it.
Managing one’s work programme is part of the process of creating an art suite. Getting a good start is important, but rushing at it doesn’t necessarily pay off. Haste can lead to errors that can be time consuming and depressing to undo.
Mind The Gap is a particularly challenging technical design; ICEHOTEL’s guests will sleep inside a London Underground tube train built entirely from snow and ice. On one level it seems pretty bonkers, but on another level it’s an enormous ‘notional’ art installation.
A fundamental part of the design is the train’s arched roof that runs the length of the carriage. This parabolic roof will be made of hundreds of keystone shaped ice blocks. It will be built a foot at a time using a wooden former in the time-honoured way for stone arches.
Once laid in place the keystone-shaped blocks will then be ‘glued’ – a small plastic cup will be used to pour water into the joints that will freeze almost instantly with a spooky cracking sound. Once the arch is set, the wooden former can be lowered and moved forward to complete the next row of blocks. This process is likely to be repeated over 20 times.
Once the ice roof is finished it will be covered with snice (snow+ice mix) to provide a smooth white roof mirroring the look of a real Underground train.
Ice can be very strong, but it is also heavy, even a 20cm thick ice & snice roof running the length of the carriage will probably weigh over two tonnes, maybe three, so it has to be built correctly – burying guests is bad for business!
Our plan of work, and each interim deadline, has to take into consideration the most logical construction sequence. Magdalena started by texturing the suite’s walls with a rough-hewn tunnel effect, whilst I concentrated on detailing the train’s outline and the shape of the tunnel entrance on the flat back wall. After some adjustments and alterations the walls and tunnel entrance are done, and construction can now advance forward into the room step by step.
The only things in the suite that aren’t ice (or snice), but that are vital, are the bed frame and mattress. The bed is a 1.6m wide x 2m long wooden ‘raft’ that sits on ice blocks. The bed is then completely covered with reindeer skins for insulation. Guests will sleep on top of this in super-warm sleeping bags.
Once the rest of the structure is closed-off, the bed frame won’t fit easily (if at all) through the tube train door, so the bed will be built in as we go along (and certainly before the front half of the car and driver’s cab are built).
Most artists work every day of the week, maybe making some small concession to it being a Sunday. They do this because everyone knows that things can and do go wrong down the tracks(!), and delays do happen, so getting ahead of schedule is wise.
So far our work is going well, the Support Team has been great in getting stuff to us when we need it, and in ensuring that it’s safely positioned, and ready for carving and finishing.
There’s a tremendous sense of collaboration, and no sense of competition between designs. We’re all looking out for each other, and all making sure everyone arrives at their destination on time. Getting where you want to go, when you need to be there – a few more things we have in common with London Underground.
Day 7 – A day of rest(ish)
It’s Sunday and everywhere is a little more peaceful. The rumble of heavy plant is silenced for a day or two of rest – for some.
I gave a small ‘nod’ to it being a traditional day off, by walking down to the banks of the frozen Torne River. In many ways the Torne is the mother of ICEHOTEL: the blocks that we are carving are harvested from the frozen river the previous March, and are stored over the summer in a cold warehouse. Here the ice matures and ‘settles’ so it’s better suited for use in construction, and for carving.
The Torne is a wide open expanse. In summer it is quite majestic, but now it is even more impressive, in a different way. It’s an enormous swathe of flat snow over ice, several hundred metres wide and around a metre thick. Its surface is strong enough to drive a car on, even heavy plant, and it is the main thoroughfare for snowmobiles and dog teams. On either side it is fringed by the snow-laden trees of the arctic forest. It is a relatively peaceful place, even when construction of ICEHOTEL is in full swing.
The only thing breaking the quiet today was the hum of the snow blowers. These are large fans in directional tubes that stand three metres high. Around the rim of the snow blower’s fan are tiny nozzles feeding water into the blast of the cold air. The result is airborne snow that settles in huge piles, providing a key raw material for ICEHOTEL.
Such is the demand for this material that the blowers are kept running early ‘til late, and even on a Sunday. It’s here where we come for barrow-loads of snow with which to make snice (the snow/ice mix that I mention repeatedly in this blog, and which is common parlance for everyone here).
As I look across the frozen river, I recall those paintings of London in the 17th century, with people ice-skating on the frozen Thames. Britain experienced a mini ice-age at that time.
For me it turned out to be a more physical day than usual. The support crew were busy prepping ice for the ICEHOTEL’s luxury suite, so we decided to get ahead and get the next 300kg block into position anyway. The arched roof of the Tube train needs substantial blocks on either side to buttress the weight of the roof. The sheer mass of these blocks, combined with their being ‘glued’ (frozen) into position will do the job. Mats, the highly experienced leader of the Support Team, and Dave Ruane arrived at the pivotal moment – literally – to help affix this vital part of the structure. Thankfully, there is a consensus that the blocks will hold!
Tomorrow will be a big day. It’s the start of the week, and everyone will want to enter their second week with vigour. Tomorrow we up that ‘ante’, and start on the roof.
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