Ice is high art in Moscow museum

By Kathy Lally
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, December 20, 2010

MOSCOW - Pavel Mylnikov, artist of the ephemeral, has suffered his fate ever since he was 12 years old and won an ice sculpting competition with a lovely frozen rabbit. His prize was ice cream. Both melted.

Winter artists everywhere understand what he has endured: A fresh snowfall challenges the creative spirit. Jolly snowmen and sturdy forts arise, only to sink into oblivion with a few degrees of warmth. The snow sculptor can impose his will but temporarily.

Until now. Mylnikov, now 32, is finally subduing his impermanent materials. He and fellow artist Bagrat Stepanyan have created an ice museum in Moscow's Sokolniki Park. It is indoors, and it is very, very cold. "When we made ice sculptures on the streets and in parks," Mylnikov said, "they would last two or three months. Now, with the ice museum, we don't have this problem."

Mylnikov, who was an art school student when he sculpted his rabbit, went on to university and studied art ever more seriously, working in bronze, stone and wood. But sand and ice beckoned him, and he became a master, with hard and fast worldwide championship medals to hold on to even as his work blew away or turned into water.

Mylnikov and Stepanyan assembled a variety of artists who attacked 800 tons of ice and 200 tons of snow with a variety of picks and saws. Fortunately, Russia has no shortage of raw materials - much of the ice was trucked in from Siberia, cut from frozen rivers. The snow was made locally.

The museum, which opened the second week of December, ranges from the monumental to the minute, with a huge dinosaur, a complete bedroom, a castle with armored guard, Joseph and Mary hovering over Jesus, a Vostok rocket ship, a bunch of grapes frozen in a small block of ice. The artists plan to change the exhibits every year - an eternity for their medium.

The temperature ranges from 5 to 12 degrees, depending on how many people are threading their way along the labyrinthine paths. Visitors can borrow oversized down coats if unprepared for the chill. The building itself is tucked behind the amusement park in Sokolniki, where Moscow royalty once hunted falcons.

On a not-so-cold Moscow weekend - it's 25 degrees outside, hardly extreme for Russia - the park is filled with visitors. Parents push baby carriages. The ferris wheel goes round and round, with passengers. Children drive bumper cars. Teenagers shooting at targets win stuffed animals. Music from loudspeakers mounted near a gazebo calls out to the middle-aged and elderly, who gather every weekend, like so many minks and ducks in their fur and down, to dance away the day. If the park operated only in summer warmth, its season would be short indeed.

And now with the ice museum, visitors can always go inside if they want to get even colder. The sculptures, illuminated by ever-changing colored lights, are made with snow and ice. Two Bulgarian artists, Ruslan Korovkov and Irina Taflevskaya, created the dinosaur by taking giant blocks of clear ice, then drawing bones on one side, where they routed out the shapes and packed them with snow. The effect is ethereal - white bones etched into a clear background forming a perfect skeleton.

Visitors form a continuous line, waiting to get inside on the museum's first weekend. Inside, enough cameras flash to compete with a Hollywood premiere. Every child wants a picture in front of the castle or dinosaur, every adult must be seen seated at the ice table or perched on the edge of the ice bed.

Mylnikov is pleased. "For me," he said, "it is very special."

© 2010 The Washington Post Company