Below-freezing temperatures are a prerequisite for Ice Furniture Raised from Lake Mendota.
Hongtao Zhou requires temperatures below freezing through at least the end of this month. An MFA candidate at UW-Madison, he is accustomed to profound chill. He studied furniture design and wood science in Harbin, the northeast Chinese megalopolis renowned for its spectacular ice festival and brutal winters, with January high and low temperatures averaging nine degrees and -12.
His craving for cold is, however, more practical than nostalgic. Below-freezing temperatures are a prerequisite for a sequel to Ice Furniture Raised from Lake Mendota, which two winters ago drew a blizzard of attention from international arts journals and boosted Zhou's position in the vanguard of sustainable design.
Caught off guard by the response, he nonetheless enjoyed the opportunity to convey the notion "that furniture can be built and disappear" without environmental impact. An attempt to repeat the exercise last winter was ruined by a warm spell. Now 32, Zhou will try again this week -- couching sustainability in the context of climate change by raising another set of furniture up from the lake off the Memorial Union Terrace. "I am expecting people around to participate so that I can teach this technique to the local folks," he notes. He hopes to finish the installation by Jan. 31.
The concept is a complement to Zhou's other work, which last year led to a guest-curator gig for the Milwaukee Art Museum's arresting "Green Furniture Design" exhibition. Up in his seventh-floor studio at the UW Humanities Building, he salvages wood scraps from other students' projects and conceives innovative ways to employ them in his more enduring furniture designs.
Some waste is an all but inevitable consequence of art. Carving his statue of David, for example, Michelangelo produced a substantial rubble of fine Carrara marble. Zhou is among those striving to dam the waste stream generated by the creative impulse -- or at least divert its currents.
Zhou's work points to an intriguing conundrum, notes Prof. Tom Loeser, who leads the wood and furniture design program here. "The big elephant in the room for designers is that the most sustainable design practice is one that doesn't put more objects in the world," he observes.
Zhou's transient, self-erasing ice work suggests "an elegant solution," Loeser explains, "leaving just a strong visual memory."
Seeking to demonstrate sustainable ideals, Zhou says, "I wanted a very clear illustration, like a story," he explains. This led him to ice, and the concept of furniture raised from a lake to which it is destined to return. As he explains this, Zhou lifts his arms as if to conjure a table and chairs from Lake Mendota's frozen surface. "Raise up from the lake," he says, "then go back to the lake," he adds, lowering his arms in a fluid manner implying passage of time.
The actual process is more painstaking. Drilling through the ice, he reaches down into the water with gloved hands, draws it up, mixes it with snow, crafts the furniture from the legs up -- raising it from the lake. Two years ago, he recalls, the wind felt "like little knives" in his face.
His discomfort was rewarded that summer, during a shoreline poster presentation. "A child was there," Zhou recalls, "and her mother told her that this furniture was here on the lake, at that part where the dock is swimming. And the child was asking, 'Where is the furniture right now?'"
Zhou delighted at the realization that even a child could grasp at least part of the green story he was trying to convey. The furniture, he told the child, is dispersed throughout the lake.