Ice artist Gordon Halloran puts the big freeze on public art

Gordon Halloran’s colourful new <em>Ice Gate</em> marks the entrance to Richmond’s O Zone Olympic celebration site

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      Grasping a long-handled squeegee, Gordon Halloran begins clearing condensation from a giant glass case on the grounds of Richmond City Hall, at the entrance to the city’s O Zone Olympic celebration site. The container for Ice Gate—his latest art installation, which is made entirely of ice—is not unlike a high-school trophy case, except that it’s more than 30 metres long and over three-and-a-half metres tall. Behind the glass, his creation is starting to take shape. Each downward stroke of the squeegee reveals something new: a flat stretch of white ice, jagged yellow spears, icy strips of green. Over the coming week, thousands more pieces will come together in a vibrant patchwork reminiscent of a glacial wall on the verge of breaking up and floating away.

      Gordon Halloran's Ice Gate.

      While Ice Gate might appear at first to be sculpture, it’s really closer to three-dimensional watercolour painting. Many of these pieces of ice were created using a process the Roberts Creek artist calls “live mixing”, whereby several different paint solutions are simultaneously poured into a single mould and frozen. This part of the work was done off-site in an enormous space in Richmond kept at a bone-chilling –27 ° C. Once the paintings set, Halloran breaks them strategically—to showcase pigment or crystal structures—and out of necessity, to ensure their safe arrival on-site.

      He pauses to watch the action on the other side of the glass. The team, which is made up primarily of graduate art students, fixes each piece of ice to the aluminum wall at the back of the case using only water. They must work quickly and carefully. Although the temperature inside the display case hovers around –5 ° C, the refrigeration system keeps the aluminum “canvas” closer to –17 ° C. Within 30 seconds, the piece is stuck firmly in place.

      Halloran begins each project with a design in mind, but ice can be unpredictable. Although he can choose colours and influence the development of the ice crystals, there is an element of serendipity. For the rural-Ontario-born artist, this experimental aspect is part of the medium’s charm. “I want it to be more of a discovery than me controlling it,” he explains, speaking to the Straight ahead of Ice Gate’s official unveiling on February 9; it will be on display throughout the Games.

      As far as Halloran knows, he is the only artist in the world working with ice in this way. He did his first major project at the West End community centre about seven years ago. Using a Zamboni as a palette knife and brush, he transformed the ice rink into a giant abstract painting. About 3,000 people came out to skate on the piece and leave their mark. Since then, he’s created installations in cities like Calgary, Toronto, and Chicago. For the 2006 Winter Games in Turin, Italy, he froze the entire interior of a church and made it his canvas.

      This latest project is not meant to be a commentary on environmental stewardship, but Halloran sees parallels between Ice Gate’s delicacy and the fragility of our environment. “The ephemeral nature of it [his work] is always a struggle for me,” he explains. For now, though, his thoughts are on the looming unveiling: “We should have the lights up by then,” he says with a smile.

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