By Patricia Harte-Maxwell

Lake Geneva, Wisconsin

The 2021 U.S. National Snow Sculpting Championship, a 72-hour marathon of sawing, hacking, chipping, engraving, and, of course, shovelling, was held in early February in Lake Geneva, Wisconsin as part of a larger event called Winterfest. The competition drew 11 teams from around the country: 3 teams from Wisconsin and Illinois each, and 1 team each from Alaska, Colorado, Florida, Iowa, and Michigan. (Images of all the sculptures can be found here, click on tile to see an expanded image.) Team Sculptora Borealis, AKA Wisconsin 2, took 1st place (2nd place for people’s choice) with their COVID-19 themed sculpture titled “Inoculation.”

The snow sculpture featured a personified SARS-CoV-2 virion complete with protruding surface proteins. The face of the virion gapes and gazes upwards in awe and horror towards a syringe cum sword embedded in the forehead – framed by flames. The needlepoint of said syringe, formed from ice, was confirmed as puncturing the virus as the medical device could be seen from the opposite side of sculpture where the virion had cracked open by a phoenix, whose wings are the flames that frame the syringe, rising from the virion. The cracking motif is also visible on the face where the sculpting team carefully etched out zigs and zags.

“Inoculation” rehashes existing metaphors: the weaponizing of medicine (the syringe as sword) and the animation of viruses despite being on the edge of life (literally giving the virus a face). Furthermore, the ‘face of the virus’ is comedic and grotesque The facial proportions, especially the enormous eyes, turn the virus into an illustrated villain while the cracked surface of the flesh and protrusions from the head became signs of disease themselves, split skin and tumorous growths, continue to dehumanize the viral face.

The sculpture also presents a revisionist series of events regarding inoculation. The sculpture completely removes the human body from the processes of both viral infection and vaccination; rather, the syringe, assumed to contain/represent some effective vaccine, directly interacts, violently, with the viral particle, a viral particle seemingly floating outside of its host. The person who would receive said vaccine is disappeared, as is their immune system, and ultimately their agency via immunology, as are the human cells infected by virus. The entire interaction is reduced to science (syringe) versus disease (virus), yet this interaction might further be translated to science (syringe) versus mortality (virus) to produce immortality (phoenix).

The simplified equation “Inoculation” displays is overwhelmingly hopeful by insinuating that from the pandemic a better version of life – read humanity or society as you wish – will emerge from the viral ashes. But this equation, this sculpture, as it transforms SARS-CoV-2 into a disfigured cartoon, by removing any sign of the actual human toll of the pandemic draws viewers’ attention away from the continued and multifaceted issues the pandemic has caused and inflamed.