Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Archives's Inflammatory Christmas Tree Ignites Controversy

One Of The Tate's Typically Atypical Christmas Trees
"Shelving Unit Tree" Created By Richard Wilson, 1998.
(All Photos Courtesy Of The Tate Library And Archive.)

Every year since 1988 the Tate Archive and Library in London has commissioned an important contemporary artist to decorate a Christmas Tree for display in its grand rotunda. The avant-garde artists' outlandish takes on the traditional symbol of yuletide gaiety have frequently caused consternation, but this year's tree has sparked a scandal like never before.

"Blue Neon Light Tree," Created By Catherine Yass, 2000.

Before revealing the source of this year's unprecedented uproar, a brief peek at the precedent set by previous projects will add some perspective. In 2008 Bob and Roberta Smith, in collaboration with environmental group Electric Pedals, created a tree using recycled timber, bicycles, and lamps. The result was an interactive kinetic sculpture powered by the happy feet of Tate visitors. It was the archive's first "green" tree in the ecological sense, if not the foliage sense.

In 2006, artist Sarah Lucas presented the Tate with a pagan-themed piece of timber. Cherubs made of stretched stockings and wire, complete with anatomically correct genitalia, were said to be "multiplied" throughout the tree. This chorus of fairies represented the classical tradition of Eros, Venus, and Cupid descending from the heavens to bedevil mere mortals via hopeless erotic adventures. Now that's what I call "Christmas spirit."

The 2002 "tree" wasn't a tree at all. It was a booth made of canvas. Artist Tracey Emin donated the actual tree to Lighthouse West London, a charitable organization serving patients with HIV and AIDS. In its place stood a panel asking museum goers to make a donation to the charity in exchange for a raffle ticket. One lucky donor won a valuable prize: an original artwork created by Emin.

In 1993, sculptor Shirazeh Houshiary chose to turn her tree upside down, expose its roots, and hang it thus inverted from the roof of the rotunda. Gold leaf adorned the exotically exposed lower extremities only. This forced the eye of the viewer to focus on a heretofore criminally overlooked section of the tree, customarily hidden by a bulwark of heavy soil. The traditionally highlighted, and perpetually decorated, branches remained brazenly bare.

The most controversial tree, prior to this year's shocker, graced the Tate in 1997. Michael Landy chose to confront viewers with a part of Christmas most of us would rather forget: the mountains of rubbish that accumulate after an orgy of conspicuous consumption. A seasonally suitable scarlet dumpster filled with bankrupt booze bottles, squashed soda cans, crumpled Christmas wrappings, cast-off cardboard, peeled away plastic packaging , out-of- vogue ornaments, and kissed-off Christmas trees helped to make the Tate's yuletide gay. A trashed-out Teletubby (Laa-Laa to be precise) surveyed the bacchanalian wreckage with jaundiced eye.

This brief sampling of over two decades of decidedly decadent trees begs the question: Can you top this? How does artist number 22 create a tree more outrageously avant-garde than a trash bin? A tree that will shout: "Stop the presses! Banner headline: 'Tate Tree Shakes City'." That tall order was given to conceptual artist and filmmaker Tacita Dean. So, enough suspense: time to reveal the Christmas creation that's the talk of the town. The seasonal symbol that's been seized upon as a singular sensation by the British press.

Artist Tacita Dean Bravely Poses Before Her Incendiary Tree.

The 2009 Tate Christmas tree is: a live Nordman fir decorated with simple, yellow beeswax candles. Nothing else. All of London is amazed: this year's tree is festive, cheery, warm, inviting and (gasp!) old-fashioned. In the grand tradition of "everything old is new again," Tacita Dean has done the most unexpected thing of all in the world of modern art: show a reverence for the historic, the time-honored, and the acceptable. How crazily, incredibly refreshing.

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