insight - Icehotel
Written by Lola Akinmade Akerstrom
After a memorable trip to the world’s first ice hotel, Stockholm-based writer and photographer Lola Akinmade Åkerström tracks down the creative and artistic force behind this ingenious living ice sculpture made from pristine Arctic waters.
Each year an estimated 50,000 visitors from 80 countries feel the pull of the magnetic north and make the journey 200km past the Arctic Circle to Sweden’s ICEHOTEL.
This seasonal ice sculpture is located in the village of Jukkasjärvi, with a local population of 900 residents and 1,000 dogs.
More than just a celebratory monument of ice, its conception is a work of living art. “I want ICEHOTEL to be considered a place to go to see art and design,” says 63-year old Arne Bergh, who has served as ICEHOTEL’s creative and artist director since 1996, and remains the creative visionary behind each masterpiece. “Guests should come here not only for the phenomenon of ‘a hotel made from ice’, but also for the art experience.”
For roughly two decades, as an artist and sculptor himself, Arne Bergh has done just that.
Born and raised in the town of Skövde in southern Sweden, Bergh often moved around with his military family, living in other towns such as Hässleholm, Boden, and Uppsala, as well as Damascus, Syria. He studied at Konstfack – Stockholm’s College of Arts – specialising in sculpting before moving to Uppsala to start up his own studio. “After moving to Uppsala, I worked there as a sculptor,” notes Bergh, reminiscing about his start as a wood sculptor. Through his studio, he was commissioned to work on sculptures of Swedish icons such as Selma Lagerlöf, Carl Linnaeus, and Alfred Nobel, as well as for the Vasa Museum dedicated to the 17th-century warship Vasa, which sank on its maiden voyage in 1628.
“In 1993, I made a trip to the Snow Festival in Kiruna and carved ice for the first time. It took a hold on me, so I decided to go there the following winter to experiment,” shares Bergh. At that time, ICEHOTEL was in its fourth reincarnation and was generating an international buzz with its newly launched Ice Bar, garnering interest because everything – from sofas and tables to chairs and glasses – was sculpted from ice.
Because local reasoning was that travellers didn’t want to visit the region during the dark winters, ICEHOTEL’s founder Yngve Bergqvist wanted to create something to draw travellers. Inspired by Japanese ice sculpture, in 1989 he invited artists from northern Sweden to participate in a workshop
Intrigued by this avant-garde creativity, Bergh reached out to Bergqvist to express an interest in collaborating. “Things changed quickly,” Bergh adds. “Every winter, I went up there to experiment with ice and develop art, taking a month off from my studio in Uppsala.” By 1996, Bergh had become the hotel’s creative director in charge of its Art and Design group. “I also became part-owner of the company in 1997.”
Since then, while working alongside late architect and friend Åke Larsson, Bergh has overseen several incarnations of ICEHOTEL, Ice Bars in Stockholm, Copenhagen, Oslo, and London, and has created ice art for Versace and Absolut Vodka’s campaigns starring models Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell, and Marcus Schenkenberg. ICEHOTEL has also served as a backdrop for movies and fashion shoots for brands like BOSS and Hermés.
Being an artist himself with a stake in the company meant the pressure was always on for Bergh to remain innovative while working through seemingly hostile weather conditions. “I wanted to get snow and ice to be accepted in the fine art world as artistic expressions. Perishable materials are traditionally not taken seriously, but we’ve succeeded and have become accepted for what we do,” notes Bergh.
Rebuilt annually from scratch, artists are invited to design suites and spaces which become the next ICEHOTEL. Just like the ephemeral Torne River, whose crystal-clear and pollutant-free waters feed each reincarnation, its art is constantly changing. Bergh, along with his Art and Design group, pore through hundreds of applications from local and international artists vying for a chance to sculpt a piece of history.
Of the 100 people involved in constructing the hotel, about half are artists, and this year’s selection is a mix of new and returning talent from Sweden, France, Italy, Japan, Greece, Romania, the USA, Mongolia, and other countries. Each is tasked with designing uniquely named suites or public spaces – from Dutch team Wouter Biegelaar and Margot Eggenhuizen, behind Art Suite Iceberg, to this year’s photo exhibition, “A warm story about a cold place”, by photographer and sculptor Anna Öhlund, and lighting designer John Pettersson.
Shaped like a contemporary igloo, its construction is an architectural feat. This year’s ICEHOTEL #23 covers 5,500 m2 and was constructed from 2,000 tons of Torne River ice, and 30,000 tons of a snow and ice mixture called ‘snice’ which acts as natural cement. The process starts between March and April when ice is harvested and stored. November and December is when actual construction commences, timed to open to the public from December through mid-April. ICEHOTEL #23 has 65 rooms with 15 art suites, one luxury suite, a reception, an ice bar sponsored by Absolut Vodka, a main hall, intricate ice sculptures, hanging chandeliers, an exhibition hall, and an ice church where an estimated 140 weddings and 20 baptisms take place annually.
Watching the hotel melt every year brings its ephemeral quality full circle. “I accept change and almost enjoy walking alone in the ruins of what we have put thousands of hours into building,” shares Bergh. “It’s nice to see the beauty in decay.”
ICEHOTEL keeps reinventing itself annually; pushing ice art design to the next cutting-edge level. This year, it brought in lighting expert André Gulliksen to illuminate its famous Ice Bar with moving lights to enhance the overall experience. With Gulliksen’s extensive background in architectural light displays for stage and studio sets, as well as lighting design for art installations, he used various shades and tones of blue and turquoise to enhance the natural textures and shapes of the ice sculptures. According to Gulliksen, “It is important not to bring in too many different colours in order to best enhance the ice, as for example pink shades can make the ice look plastic.”
Meet the Artists
In addition to bedding down in rooms made from ice, guests can also watch videos from the artists who designed the particular rooms they’re staying in. All its spaces were conceptualised, designed, and sculpted by 50 hand-picked international artists – from local Swedish talents
The artists share the inspirations behind their stunning designs, as well as the challenges they faced while putting their installations together using ice and snow in sub-zero temperatures.
Guests with smartphones can also download and watch the videos using Quick Response (QR) barcodes engraved in ice blocks located by the entrance of each room, which allow guests to watch the videos through an application that recognises the codes.