Linda O’Grady: Wading in Wonderland

  • 2014-02-11
  • By Linda O’Grady

Last weekend, Feb. 7-9, saw the 16th International Ice Sculpture Festival take place in Jelgava. Gathering 30 sculptors from 8 countries, the festival promised to be one of the highlights of the Latvian calendar. My foreign friends in Riga, who had been there before, assured me that this one would not disappoint.

I decided to go on the Saturday, and after the short train ride from Riga to Jelgava, was met by my friend at the station. As he’s a Jelgavian (is that a word?), and had visited the festival many times before, I thought it would be useful to get his local perspective.

We arrived at the gate at around 3 p.m., handed over our tickets, and entered Uzvaras (Victory) Park. I was expecting to be wowed, but this year, unfortunately, Mother Nature had other ideas. The theme of the festival was ‘Wonderland,’ with the sculptors creating their idea of wonderland from "the fragile material of ice," as the festival's website describes it. I just don’t think anyone realized how fragile it could be.

With the temperature at a balmy 5 C, the grounds were more swimming pool than park. People sloshed around through the mud, slush, and puddles, sticky with candy floss or sipping on warming beverages. We started to stroll/wade around the park, admiring what was left of the sculptures and trying to imagine what they were supposed to have been - or maybe they were really very abstract to begin with and I’m just not that smart.

Faces had melted off, limbs were missing and (what had possibly been) Alice from “Alice in Wonderland,” lay in large chunks of ice on the ground.

Shrek and Donkey had fared a little better - although they were both missing an ear, there was a certain lop-sided symmetry to it.

My favorite piece of the day was entitled ‘Moon Angels’ which told the story of two lovers who only meet when the moon shines. Created by two Estonian sculptors, it was one of the standout sculptures for me – and the angels still had their wings attached, which helped.

Walking around, you couldn't help but feel sorry for the sculptors who’d clearly put their heart and soul into the pieces. My Jelgavian felt sorry for all of the foreign visitors, who’d traveled to Jelgava expecting something more spectacular than soggy. To cheer myself up, I decided to have a go on the still intact ice slide – the only person over 6 years of age who’d chosen to do so. Standing at the top of the wooden platform surrounded by boisterous toddlers, I almost instantly regretted my decision, but it was too late then.

I maneuvered myself onto a plastic tray with a lot of ungainly sliding around and, with a helpful push from the assistant, I was off - at about 4 km. per hour. I hadn't quite gained the momentum to make it past the flat middle section of the slide so there was some furious hacking at the ice with my heels, and futile clawing at the sides to try to get myself moving again. I eventually chugged to the bottom of the slide, a little wetter and colder, but also a lot more giggly and invigorated.

To warm up again, we made our way to the rather impressive Ice Bar where the friendly bar girl poured us two large shots of vodka with hot cranberry juice.

Clutching our drinks, we slid over to the benches beside the main stage, where colorful characters were entertaining the little folk. “Right leg, left leg, jump, duck!” sang three munchkin maidens while the tots in front of the stage tried to keep up, their parents egging them on. SpongeBob was mobbed by excited fans, young and old, as he exited the stage.

At 5 p.m., it was time for the ice sculpting demonstration, something I’d been looking forward to – and this did not disappoint. As the compère kept up a running commentary, we watched as three sculptors (two Latvians and one Lithuanian) transformed huge blocks of ice into works of art.

For me, the show was stolen by Donatas, the Lithuanian. He was a real character and seemed to really delight in letting loose with his chainsaw. The crowd, “ooh-ed,” and “ah-ed,” as chips of ice rained down on the front rows and it became apparent what the sculptures were. Members of the audience asked questions and the participants happily answered them while chipping away at, and polishing, their masterpieces.

Although various other concerts and shows were happening later that night, by that stage, my feet were like two blocks of ice so we decided to call it a day. On the train back to Riga, identified by the stamps on our hands, we got chatting to a Latvian lady who was clearly disappointed with the festival this year. She said that it had been much better with far more beautiful sculptures in the past. While I shared in her disappointment to a certain extent, there really was nothing anybody could have done about the unseasonably warm weather and, all in all, it had been an enjoyable day out.

I did feel a little sorry for the people who’d bought tickets for the Sunday though – I hope they like looking at puddles.