Art and Ice

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Have you heard of the Harbin International Snow & Ice Festival that started a couple of days ago in China?  Every year, Chinese artists carve sculptures from ice blocks taken from the nearby Songhua River to decorate a massive 100 acre site.


Harbin is located in Northeast China, near Siberia, and temperatures remain freezing for half the year.  So plenty of time to practice ice sculpting then!  The ice festival is pretty amazing as these photos show.

ice festival

This ice festival harkens back to a long tradition of ice lanterns in Imperial China.  During the late Ming and early Qing dynasties, hunters needed a way to get back to their homes through the forest.  The Chinese made ice lanterns by partially freezing ice in buckets and then placing a candle underneath the ice block.  The ice protected the candle flame from the elements as well as magnifying its light.


The Harbin ice festival is a way of celebrating this tradition of ice lanterns.  Families would carve ice sculptures in informal competitions to while away the long winters.  The Mayor of Harbin decided to formalise the competitions thirty years ago.  The festival now sees 1 million visitors every year.

I was lucky enough to see the Harbin artisans’ work without going to China.  Every year, Gaylord National Resort, a hotel in Washington D.C., brings in about 40 Harbin artists to create an ice sculpture.  All the ice sculptures are hand-carved over a month-long period and then exhibited for another few weeks.

The Harbin artisans carved 5000 blocks of ice weighing 2 million pounds for an indoor walk-through exhibition.  The sculptures are kept in a special 15,000 square foot with the temperature kept at a chilly 9 degrees Fahrenheit (-13 Celsius).  We were given special blue parkas to put over our outerwear and, even then, I was pretty cold.

The themes this year for the sculptures was Clement Moore’s classic poem, ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas and also Christmas in New York City.

letter to santa

My children’s favourite part was the two-story tall ice slide.  The banisters were carved from ice too!!

ice slide
ice slide

Washington D.C. doesn’t get as cold as Harbin and so the ice was factory-made into the three different types required.  Crystal Ice is made using filtered de-ionized water which is frozen slowly over several days.  The ice molecules line up perfectly to create a crystallized look.  White Ice looks like the cloudy ice cubes you get from a home freezer and is made by freezing water quickly.  Coloured Ice is made when food colouring is added to the freezing process.  This ice, though, must be continually stirred in order to ensure the colour is consistent throughout the ice block.

The ice is glued together by simply freezing the pieces into place.  I’m not sure I’ll look at ice the same way again!  In fact, this exhibition is so cool, I want to visit the actual ice festival in Harbin.  FYI, the Washington D.C. exhibit is done but the Harbin ice festival itself lasts until the end of February.

What do you think? Are ice sculptures art or do you think they should be left to OTT wedding receptions?