Brian "Visker" Mahanay maintains a sculpture studio in the Heights, but his most recent commission took him to Jukkasjarvi, Sweden, to sculpt a suite with fiancee and Houston-based architect Julie Birsinger at the iconic ICEHOTEL.
They were the only team from the United States selected to design a suite at the world's largest hotel built entirely of ice. The ephemeral art endeavor — come spring, their work will melt — took the duo 200 kilometers north of the Arctic Circle. CultureMap met with Mahanay at the 11th Street Berryhill to get the scoop on the intrepid icecapade.
Several years ago, the couple, who have collaborated at the Beer Can House and Orange Show, encountered information on the ICEHOTEL while researching a potential vacation to Antarctica. The arctic allure drove them to apply this summer.
"We drew out the proposal in about two hours over several beers," Mahanay says. "When we got accepted in August, we had no idea what we were getting ourselves into."
They were supplied with a 20-by-20 foot room, 10,000 pounds of ice derived from the frozen Torne River, a snow chisel and a chainsaw. Explains Mahanay, in a sub-zero environment, water becomes glue. The far northern stretches of Scandinavia are so dry that the snow has a texture akin to sand, and so it is mixed with ice to become a malleable substance — what Mahanay calls "snice."
Mahanay and Birsinger, both of whom had never before worked with ice, conceived their suite to resemble an art gallery, adorned with three baroque picture frames that provided views on to layered cut sheets of ice.
"It's kind of like a painting on a wall, but 3-D," Mahanay says. Each diorama niche was inspired by images that are typically in motion — fire, an organic monster, waves — but depicted in layers of ice, they become a "freeze frame."
They conceived the ornate frames on imaging program AutoCAD, and a C&C router cut out the designs. Although the artists were limited to one medium, they manipulated different forms of translucent and frosted ice to create a visually dynamic environment.
The walls made of blocks of snow were shaved down like masonry with high-grade sandpaper, and snice was applied to smooth the joints. Mahanay built a bed with a simple alternating ice brick pattern. Blankets of reindeer skins were the only non-water material to be found in their suite.
On the night before the hotel's opening, the couple got dibs on the room. And while Mahanay is eager to share his work with hotel guests, he does have one reservation about those checking in: Guests urinating on the art, frequently following a night of consecutive lingonberry and vodkas at the ICEHOTEL's bar. In the hedonistic frozen free-for-all, it's easy for the European elite to lose track of their bodily functions. Mahanay elaborates:
So, you've paid all this money to stay in this art suite, but there's nothing to do. You're basically going to go get drunk in the ice bar, go back to your room and have sex, and get up the next morning and leave. It's not like there's a TV and you're going to 'hang out.'"
Since the art suites aren't equipped with plumbing, tipsy tourists have no problem popping a squat in the minus-20 degree air.
During the two week process of realizing their art suite, Mahanay and Birsinger connected with 17 fellow artists in a separate house, called the Octagon, every morning at 8:30. By that time, the couple may have already been working for six hours, since with a short two hours of dim sunlight, they never adjusted away from Texas time. Mahanay was pleased with the results of their work, and he and his fiancee are already at work on their designs for next year's application.
"Now that we understand that materials, it will be much faster," he says, suggesting that ICEHOTEL is receptive to return applicants because they have a keener grasp of the unique studio environment. He also plans on keeping in touch with the artist friends they now have in countries as far afield as Japan, Bulgaria, and of course, Sweden.
As the ICEHOTEL packs in 40,000 to 60,000 visitors this winter, the Oklahoma-native and Houston resident of 12 years is back in town working on a new initiative for the Orange Show. Mahanay envisions reworking warehouses on the fringe of the Orange Show property as a garage for art classes and studio for art cars.
"With school budget cuts, the first thing to go are art and shop classes, so we're refitting the warehouses to provide a learning space for neighborhood kids," he says. There will also be adult workshops covering welding, fabrication and Mahanay-taught seminars on fiberglass and LEDs.
Once the crowds leave and this year's 5,500 square meter ICEHOTEL melts, retreating towards the Torne River, Mahanay and Birsinger will put their brainstorming into hyperdrive.
He declares, "We're going to go back and build something insane."