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Four years in the making, the first ever Snow Show art and architecture biennale hits Kemi and Rovaniemi in Finnish Lapland this month. Neil Wenman reports on the acclaimed artists and architects faced with the arctic conditions, and the projects they have planned

'This is mad! This is crazy!' proclaimed Kalervo Ukkola, the mayor of Kemi, one of the two cities in Finnish Lapland that are hosting the first ever Snow Show. Opening this month (February), after four years of planning, this biennale of art and architecture has become a platform for international cross-disciplinary dialogue.

Originated by Lance Fung, a New York gallerist and independent curator, the event features interventions made from snow and ice. The project was promoted as a playground for collaborative and experimental art as well as a tourist attraction for a remote and overlooked corner of the world.

The small, industrial port of Kemi and the larger tourist city of Rovaniemi, both under at least 1 metre of snow and temperatures hitting -28infinityC, have become hosts to acclaimed artists and architects. The list reads as a Who's Who - Yoko Ono, Carsten Höller, Tatsuo Miyajima, Lawrence Weiner and Rachel Whiteread teamed-up with architects including Tadao Ando, Arata Isozaki, Diller + Scofidio, Morphosis and LOT-EK.

Each pair was set the brief to build a structure no larger than a footprint of 100 square metres, no more than 9 metres in height and with no less than 80 per cent of its construction in snow or ice.

In this bleak terrain and extraordinary climate, against immense logistic and financial challenges, the Snow Show succeeds in showcasing breathtaking interventions.

Moreover, the event focuses the international media spotlight on a region that for the rest of the year is known only as home to Santa. Although many collaborators question the parameters of snow and ice construction, they fail to offer contemporary solutions to architecture. The work for the next six weeks will stand strong as sculpture before slowly melting and disappearing back into the landscape.

Few projects engage in issues beyond the extreme local climate and materiality, with the exception of the New York-based architectural duo Diller + Scofidio in collaboration with American artist John Roloff. Conceptual rigour and an awareness of contemporary sociology are distilled effortlessly within their installation. 'The collaboration was good because we both took a conceptual approach. We looked at what ice actually was, both as a conceptual and a physical model, ' says Roloff. 'We discussed ideas of purity - they looked at culture and I looked at nature - and how they overlap in bottled water.'

The piece, entitled 'Pure Mix', situated within the frozen Gulf of Bothnia, is a grid of excavated troughs filled with international brands of still mineral water. The 81 cavities, lit from beneath, each 30cm deep, contain brands of water such as Safeway, Vichy, NestlÚ and Gucci, which took three days to freeze prior to the opening. The work comments on the globalisation of brand culture and the cyclical process of the domestification of nature and its eventual return - a point exemplified as the work melts and each constituent water type gradually mixes with the sea itself.

Industrial undertones are emphasised by the siting of the work and its orientation toward the bellowing flues of a local paper mill, Kemi's largest industry.Seen in the darkness of night, beneath the breathtaking Aurora Borealis (Northern Lights), this H 20 periodic table becomes a multi-coloured disco floor.Each specimen shows its true 'impure'colours, illustrating the sinister reality of one of life's most precious commodities.

The most ambitious project, certainly in terms of scale, is the collaboration between acclaimed architect Tadao Ando and Japanese installation artist Tatsuo Miyajima sited in the second city of Rovaniemi, an hour's drive north, and famous for Alvar Aalto's city plan and three civic buildings.'I couldn't imagine what -30infinityC would feel like, ' says the artist.

'I had no experience of the materiality of ice so it was a very difficult proposal for me.'

The parabolic, arched tunnel, constructed wholly out of ice blocks, curves graciously within the winter landscape. Although using a traditional building technique, the simplicity combined with Miyajima's LED digits beautifully encapsulates the essence of contemporary design. 'The ice is amazing but very difficult to get a good finish and maintain the transparency.Finally I am very satisfied.'

Walking through the tunnel, the pair construct a journey through life. Here, each of the 70 digits represents individual human beings. Within Miyajima's abstracted language of numerology,1 to 9 represents different stages of human life (zero omitted as it signifies death). As each 'individual'augments we see the passing of time and its subsequent reincarnation. When positioned at the mid-point of the tunnel one can look in both directions and see no end, as if held within a kind of Möbius strip.

'Tadao gave me a sketch idea for the building, 'explains Miyajima, 'and I had to find a way out - an Ice-Time Tunnel.'

Sited 6km north of Rovaniemi is the project by Yoko Ono and Japanese architect Arata Isozaki, entitled 'Penal Colony'.The location of the cuboid folly is firmly stipulated by the artist and crucial to her concept and mythology.'The work is on the Arctic Circle and rings the top of the world, 'explains John Hendrix, Yoko Ono's personal curator.Visitors each carry a candle to guide their way through the forbidding labyrinthine ice walls, as the piece is to be entered only at night.Once deep within the work there is a strong sense of incarceration as 2,000 blocks of ice stand like stone.

'When I see the show, I think that it is very difficult to make something out of snow. It's very interesting how some pieces use the ice and the natural light.They're astonishing and unique in the world, 'proclaimed design guru Philippe Starck at the opening.'However, I think the rules should have been stricter to stop the artists and architects from using light, tint and electronics, and to concentrate and play more with the qualities of snow and ice itself.Many artists escaped these problems and distracted us by using the artifice.' A point understood by Zaha Hadid, whose ambitious structures in Rovaniemi typically grew out of the winter topology. Her synonymous acute angles and sharp edges weren't translatable in snow or ice construction, so were smoothed off to form curvaceous contours that pushed the aesthetic in a '30s direction.

Maintaining coherence with the materiality, Hadid's two structures act as distinct halves to a stage set for Cai Guo-Qiang's rather anticlimactic fire performance, where channels in the structure are doused with vodka and set alight. 'We started from the fluid nature of water and developed a new landscape that came out of the local topography in the form of two mirroring structures, one of ice and one of snow, ' says Rocio Pas, project manager for Zaha Hadid. 'Working with Cai, we were interested in playing with oppositions, snow and ice, solid and translucent, yin and yang, and fire and water.'

A refreshing counterpoint to this Modernism was American artist Kiki Smith and architect Lebbeus Woods' intervention, a fairy-tale Ice Moon/Pool. This fantastical sub-lit ice rink, invisible by day as it sits on the banks of the frozen river of Rovaniemi, becomes a fictitious constellation of Smith's imagery with Woods'cosmos of fluorescent UV lighting.Smith's silhouettes of flying women appear held in cryogenic suspension. 'Lebbeus and I wanted to work together for many years, ' says Kiki Smith.

'We both had a vision of a flat surface.We superimposed each other's work. I wanted to create a celestial heaven with images of women in the sky, witches, ghosts and angels.We laser-cut their silhouettes out of stainless steel and laid them under the surface.'

The Snow Show is on until 31 March 2004 and will then go to the 2006 Turin Winter Olympics. Visit the website at www. thesnowshow. net.Neil Robert Wenman is art & architecture coordinator at Lisson Gallery, London, and travelled courtesy of the Finnish Tourist Board.

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