Of icy, transient creations

In the snow

Of icy, transient creations

Stunning sub-zero scapes of art! That is what snow festivals are. Held across the latitudes, at icy-cold venues in the northern hemisphere, these have become much-awaited events in the months of January and February. That’s when deep snow covers the ground and the vistas get transformed into a blank canvas for artists.

Sculptors arrive with their tool bag of chisels, shovels, handsaws, and use these in tandem with large cutting and moulding machines to carve blocks of ice or snow into pieces of transient art. Snow is an icy maiden: frosty, slippery and tough to mould. Ice is even more hostile and definitely dangerous. But artistic passion sears through the frigid, be it material or environ, and constructs beauty.

And what is it that these sculptors present? There are small dragons and pandas, towering castles and palatial palaces, sprawling cities complete with bridges and skyscrapers, film celebrities and sportstars, comic and cartoon characters also dot the venues, and the abstract flourishes too. Not just that, at festivals like Gielo in Norway, ice makes music. Here sculptors create gigantic musical instruments that can be played perfectly to tune.

That they are ephemeral in nature makes these artworks even more valuable. They stand just for the moment, for in a few weeks, maybe days, they will melt into oblivion.

When mercury dips to single digit, just the thought of stepping out into the cold sends shivers down the spine. We needn’t hazard a guess how tough it would be to work in minus temperatures for hours together, with a raw material that can alter form at the slightest change in climatic condition. Thus, organising a snow festival where artists create art on the spot involves massive planning, state machinery and manpower.

I witnessed what goes into the making of a successful event during a trip to Hokkaido, Japan, to see the Sapporo Snow Festival, locally called Yuki Matsuri. Hokkaido is the northernmost of Japan’s four islands and has the harshest winter. It has used weather to its advantage by organising a line-up of shows to attract tourists. The snow festival, considered amongst the best in the world, is the big daddy among them all.

As I drive into Sapporo, the island’s capital, it appears like any other bustling metropolis. That impression changes once I reach Odori Park. Come February and this 1.5 km strip in the heart of town turns into a white paradise, with artistry dotting its space. The Sapporo event started way back in 1950, when a group of schoolboys created a few sculptures out of sheer fun. It attracted quite a crowd and a seed got sown, which has blossomed into an event that draws over two million visitors annually.

I walk through knee-deep snow at Odori, the largest among three venues which host the festival, admiring sculptures inspired by Japanese culture, comic characters and sportsmen, particularly baseball stars. My host tells me that besides citizens and competitors from around the world, the Japan Self-Defense Forces, the unified military outfit of the country, also participates and usually constructs the tallest structure. In 2015, they had used 3,500 tons of snow to create a 50 ft x 75 ft representation of Star Wars, the popular sci-fiction.

The festival is considered a form of military training for the forces as they pitch in with transporting massive tonnes of snow from the northern areas in case of lean snowfall in Sapporo. Considering how tough I find the freezing surroundings, it’s truly commendable how these sculptures have been built with astonishing precision and attention to detail, so typical of the soft-spoken Japanese. As dusk falls, a lot of creations are lit up aesthetically, giving the whole area a fairyland feel. Cut-outs of the lovely snowflake, the emblem of the festival, hangs everywhere, adding to the festive feel.

A few km away from Odori, at the Susukino site, about 100 ice sculptures attract eyeballs. On the fringes of the Odori venue, I am intrigued by the efficient temporary post office. What a subtle way to attract visitors to buy Sapporo festival customised stationery and postcards, and post mail on the spot.

There are also a cluster of restaurants serving, among others, Sapporo’s famous beer and miso ramen. Hokkaido’s much-relished sushi is also on the menu. I am pleasantly taken aback to spot Taj Mahal, an Indian restaurant serving kebabs and naans. The manager has been a regular at the festival, and has seen it grow in scale and stature.

The conditions are severe, but true art always finds admirers, and Sapporo is an illustration of that. My experience on this Japanese island remains one of its kind.

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