Spring has finally come to the upper Midwest, and with its arrival Hongtao Zhou’s installation Snow Furniture is an increasingly distant memory (fig. 1). Over three intensive days in late January, Zhou, a woodworker and sculptor based in Madison, Wisconsin, used snow, ice and sticks to create a set of chairs outside the East Galleria of the Milwaukee Art Museum. Part performance piece and part political statement, the installation was one of the more unusual and provocative works in an exhibition of “green furniture” Zhou and I curated at the MAM.
As performance piece, Snow Furniture featured Zhou and a team of local school children (fig. 2). Bundled in down parkas to withstand twenty-degree temperature, these energetic assistants helped create the slushy material used to build the chairs. Zhou equipped them with an aluminium bucket, and sent them to fetch water from the shore of Lake Michigan, a few steps away from the museum. Snow was mixed in with this water, and then applied to an armature of sticks (fig 3). Within minutes, this mixture froze and the chairs took shape to the delight of the children and the audience of adults watching from inside the museum.This might seem like an innocuous playground exercise or a variation on a snow sculpture competition, but the political stakes of the installation became evident a few days later, after an unusual early-February thaw. As temperatures rocketed into the high-40s, the chairs started to melt, morph and lose their rigidity (fig 4). They took on a biomorphic, surrealist air. “Dancing furniture” is the way Zhou described the installation when he returned to Milwaukee to enjoy the warmer air. He argued that the change in the shape of chairs called attention to the entropic effects of global warming. For Zhou, the work specifically indexed one of they key manifestations of climate change: increased temperature variation and the shift from steady seasonal patterns to rapid freezes and thaws.
As the winter went on and temperatures continued to vary, the chairs continued to dance. To return to the installation each morning was to see a fresh and reinvented work. One morning in late-February after a snowfall, the chairs looked like fluffy, upholstered divans. After a cold snap in March, they were icy and skeletal (fig 5). These variations tracked something more than the effects of climate change. The constant evolution of Snow Furniture showcased the artistry and animism of nature, the obsessive inventiveness of her masterful hand. Like the artist David Nash, who builds wooden sculptures out of unseasoned wood that changes shape as the material dries and shrinks, the aesthetic power of Snow Furniture hinged on nature’s power and unpredictability, on changing temperatures, wind speeds, and uncertain patterns of rain and snow. What was truly green about the installation was the way it called attention to this power—to nature as agent and artist.Snow Furniture might seem like a good project for the Artic or some desolate tundra, rather than a factory town like Milwaukee. But the installation was closely connected to its site. Standing in front of the dancing chairs and looking south, one could see the crisp white atrium of the Milwaukee Art Museum, designed by Santiago Calatrava, and beyond it, the Milwaukee skyline (fig 6). A pair of belching smokestacks, vestiges of a once thriving industrial economy were particularly prominent. It was hard not to read the installation against these towers, and to juxtapose the pure, productive power of nature with the impure, productive power of the machine. “Nature,” Zhou explained, “was the perfect, carbon-neutral artist.”
Zhou, who is fond of such sagely pronouncements, is a fascinating character with an unusual background for an artist. Born in China, he came to the US in his mid-twenties to do a PhD in furniture engineering at Purdue. In his coursework and dissertation, he focused on the “lifecycle” of furniture. His challenge was to design a chair that would last for a definitive period. The goal was five years. Zhou mastered this challenge but wasn’t fulfilled by it. After he finished his degree, he moved from the factory to the studio to take up an MFA in woodworking under Tom Loeser at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. His focus has been on sustainability and environmentally-friendly furniture.
Snow Furniture reflects Zhou’s unusual training. Like any good engineer, he harnessed a force larger than himself to craft the chairs. And like his work at Purdue, he created a set of chairs that only existed for a fixed amount of time.
But while Zhou’s earlier designs failed and then endured as a series of parts, the dancing chairs evaporated into thin air, leaving no residue.
Gone without a trace and largely crafted by the power of nature, Snow Furniture invites us to reflect on the way we value art, and the premium we place on durability, artisanal skill, and the marks of the artist’s hand. Though his installation no longer presides in front of the museum, Zhou’s other-directed, ephemeral aesthetic raises questions for every artist to think through.
Ethan W. Lasser is curator of the Chipstone Foundation
See also the website for Hong Tao.