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Ultimate North: Lapland

I just want to get to Lapland before the art melts. This is why, although Montreal is enjoying its most grotesque winter in three decades, I am departing for the Arctic Circle. The Snow Show, which was staged last winter in Finnish Lapland, is by now old news in the art world: an inspired curator seduced a group of vaunted artists and architects to design works made of ice here, about 25 degrees north of the Whitney Museum.

Everyone went to the opening, but I decided to attend the closing. Or, if you will, the slow death. All of these extravagant works will revert to a shapeless, sloshing state as spring creeps up with her blowtorch. It may seem a morbid preoccupation, traveling to watch art die, but I'm interestedin seeing what these virtuosos do when they have no choice but to take into account the gradual ruination of their work.

The Snow Show is also, for me, a motivating excuse to finally confront the North. The mystical northern encounter is a Pan-Canadian obsession. In 1967, the great Canadian pianist Glenn Gould produced a radio feature called "The Idea of North," in which a contrapuntal braid of narrators tried to articulate the meaning of northernness. Gould found his own epiphany through an actual physical voyage: he recorded much of the material on the Muskeg Express, a train that climbs 1,000 miles into the upper reaches of Manitoba. The Idea of North. I have long considered it a Bad Idea. I associate the north with black flies, frostbite, and seasonal affective disorder. But I am traveling to Lapland to see whether I can conquer this antipathy, and replace it with something else—perhaps wonder.

I fly north from Helsinki to Rovaniemi, the unofficial capital of Finnish Lapland, and when I emerge from the airport, I am confused. Have I flown south by mistake?But no, here I am at the Arctic Circle, and it's 10 degrees warmer than it was in Montreal. I make an instant decision: I'm moving.

Unfortunately, for me, Rovaniemi is the official home of Santa, who is responsible for an avalanche of kitsch: Santa Claus Village, Santa Park, Santa Claus's Post Office (yes, that's where all those darling letters addressed MR. SANTA CLAUS, NORTH POLE, THE WORLD get delivered). Rovaniemi is also a typically Arctic city, that is to say, not exactly stunning. A river runs through it, but what it runs through are mostly squat brick buildings and mini-malls. The monotony is only occasionally punctuated by something mobile and notable—say, an elderly woman whose walker has little skis attached.

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