Photo by Jayme Halbritter, 2023

In Minneapolis, a Great Northern meltdown while the Cold War is on

BY Adam Robb | February 5, 2024

Above: What the sauna pop-up is supposed to look like in any given year. Photo by Jayme Halbritter, 2023.

The programmers didn’t lower the bar on the fourth annual Great Northern festival; the sun did.

A new Minneapolis tradition, since 2021 the festival has energized the bitterest two weeks of the winter season with an ambitious twin-citywide calendar of sports, cultural, and culinary events, including the US Pond Hockey Championships, a pop-up sauna village, and a street long cocktail bar carved from ice. And while hundreds of thousands of visitors supplied a festive atmosphere, they still had to contend with the whims of the earth’s climate. Nighttime lows surged beyond the average daytime highs, and as temperatures held steady in the 40s and 50s, fantasies of snowscapes gave way to unseasonable sweater weather which attracted bigger crowds to fewer events.

Last Thursday afternoon, homegrown Caribou Coffee handed out free hot chocolate from behind the carved bar which spanned the fire-pitted alley behind the Four Seasons Minneapolis ($345 night), but as placid branches and wildflower centerpieces frozen in situ started to thaw, drinkers opted instead for the latest offerings from 3Leche, a local non-alcoholic canned cocktail company, offering “fermented botanical” beverages the city’s hottest bars have embraced as mixers.

View of downtown Minneapolis. It looks cold, but it wasn’t. Photo by Adam Robb.

Here I caught up with Adam Wtiherspoon, the hotel’s OG beverage director and one of Minneapolis’ most beloved barmen, who poured me a shot of Keeper’s Heart, Irish-American whiskey from the award-winning O’Shaughnessy Distillery at Malcolm Yards. As I set down my glass, the dropped height of the bar was obvious, a good-half foot lower than when the festival began. The final day of the festival was Robb Jones’ and Tyler Kleinow’s turn to showcase their talents; their Meteor bar was just named a semi-finalist for Outstanding Bar Program at this year’s James Beard awards, but come Sunday afternoon it looked like a meteor had struck, and what was left off of the set up was a fast evaporating pool studded with cracked ice and broken twigs.

There was no shortage of bracing drinks at A Winter’s Table, however. The festival’s most luxe dinner occupied the Nordic Village atop the Four Seasons, a collection of winter huts from which servers emerged with martini glasses overflowing with dill aquavit, before dinner downstairs at Mara, the domain of former James Beard Rising Star chef Gavin Kaysen. The Daniel Boulud alum assembled an all-star team of visiting Swedish chefs who mostly made it through customs with their lingonberries in tow. As the festival’s VIPs mingled, the topic of climate change was on as many lips as the charred scallion salt that accompanied the duo of beef. The takeaway: The upside of the canceled pond hockey championships was that it could turn players and fans into more active environmental advocates.

Inside Mara.

The warm weather even eliminated one of the festival’s grand gestures of midwestern hospitality, handing out Askov Finlayson parkas to visiting media. I only needed a light jacket for my long walk the next morning. Another upside of the festival’s reduced schedule, there was plenty of free time to take in the city’s art scene, so I spent the next day touring the Walker Art Center’s latest exhibition, Multiple Realities: Experimental Art in the Eastern Bloc, 1960s-1980s.

The chill inside the museum came from the Cold War. The show was a timely celebration of late 20th century artists who challenged the prescribed aesthetics of the Soviet era by pushing the boundaries of self-expression as it related to feminism, homosexuality, and agency over one’s self in public and private.

Following the fall of the Berlin Wall, East German artist Cornelia Schleime found inspiration in the declassified files that state police had kept on her. She recreated their erroneous findings in a series of comical and erotic self-portraits that recreated their observations and assumptions about her public and interior life, from lazy afternoons smoking in bed while gossiping on the phone, to topless sunbathing and garden party foot massages ripped from Venus in Furs.

Cornelia Schleime self portrait at Multiple Realities Exhibition at the Walker Art Center. Photo by Adam Robb.

Sanja Ivekovic, didn’t wait for the Yugoslavian government to collapse before challenging the security state. On a sunny May day in 1979, Ivekovic broke protocol by stepping out on her balcony as President Tito passed through the Zagreb city center. Aware she was being observed, she acted on her exhibitionistic impulses, to test how long the police would tolerate her bad behavior before an officer knocked on her door and ordered her inside.

The Walker show was in perfect dialogue with Zoran’s Surrealist Sculptures: Dry Neck of the Pig and Other Curios, the latest exhibition at The Museum of Russian Art, which opened last Saturday night.

TMORA was conceived as a showcase for Socialist Realism, the official artform of the Soviet era, but today the museum, a former Mission-style church, features a Ukrainian flag on its exterior, and its main atrium is now displaying a retrospective of wood and stone sculptures by Zoran Mojsilov, an ex-Yugoslavian wrestler turned commando turned conscientious objector who, like Ivekovic, made his most provocative works under the Tito regime.

Unlike Ivekovic, he didn’t have the freedom to play with himself on his balcony. If he had, he might have found himself institutionalized rather than teaching art inside a mental hospital. It was there he conceived of his life-sized Tree of Re-Education. Three figures hang from the branches, metamorphosing through the madness of political reeducation, only to emerge the same as when they entered in their own mind, but a new man in the eyes of the state.

The work’s latter interpretation was well-received in his former homeland, and Mojsilov fled the country with his newfound fame relocating to Paris, then Minneapolis. Today, his more abstract sculptures dominate public spaces like Target Field and Surly Brewery, and tackle subjects like village soup pots and roast beef which may have explained why I left the show hungry.

The ice bar on the last day of the Great Northern fest. Photo by Adam Robb.

On my second to last day in Minneapolis, I finally began to make sense of the autograph seekers mobbing the back door of the Four Seasons. Every day I pushed through them on my way back to the ice bar. That morning, I rode the elevator down to breakfast with players on the Orlando Magic, (who defeated the Timberwolves, 108-106, Friday night.) And on my way back from TMORA, I succumbed to ordering takeout, figuring my dinner would arrive by the time I got back. I ordered local, opting for the infamous “Poultrygeist” ghost pepper fried chicken from Revival, an acclaimed barbecue spot anchoring the Market at Malcolm Yards next door to O’Shaughnessy’s. (Pro tip: The bread and pickles won’t cut the heat, but ordering an additional pork sandwich stuffed with cole slaw will.) I returned too early, however, so I kicked back on a sofa in the lobby waiting for my order. I wasn’t the only one. My ears perked up to a conversation that shifted from raising cane corsos to partying with Drake. I wasn’t the only visitor who couldn’t bring themselves to stay in. The Houston Rockets were waiting for their UberEats orders too.