Christmas versus contemporary art: a mismatch worth celebrating

By Mark Sheerin | 20 December 2012
Colour photo of a Christmas tree in a gallery suspended upside down
Shirazeh Houshiary, Christmas Tree (1993)© Tate Photography

As galleries flag up their New Year's offerings, you might not know that in the art world it is still the season of goodwill. Mark Sheerin asks why not...

Seasonal lists abound on the world wide web. 25 bad Christmas album covers, 20 bad Christmas ads, 10 ugly Christmas sweaters. But the one slideshow you surely won’t find is 50 contemporary Christmas art works. The art world doesn’t really do Christmas, so why not?

One reason could be that the Grinch got to Tate Britain. Between 1988 and 2010 the Millbank gallery invited a series of cutting edge artists to decorate or reimagine the traditional Christmas tree.

It is no surprise that results included a tree in a skip - thanks to Michael Landy - and another hung upside down courtesy of Shirazeh Houshiary. Tracey Emin dispensed with hers altogether, giving the budget away to an AIDS charity.

Perhaps, at a time when the rest of the country is getting creative with homemade cards, amateur cookery, decorations and carefully wrapped gifts, it becomes more difficult for artists to identify themselves as such.

Wherever you are reading this, chances are that you’ve become aware of a nearby domestic residence or two with an eye-popping light display. Really, there’s no point trying to compete.

But another reason for the silent nights (and days) in the art world could be the very myth which the season’s festivities celebrate. Birth and babies in general seem under-represented in contemporary art.

It was not until the 70s, when Mary Kelly produced Post-Partum Document, that pregnancy and motherhood got fully treated in conceptual terms. In the meantime, we have had 500 years of Ugly Renaissance Babies.

Painter Brian Whelan and former YBA Matt Collishaw are among the small group of contemporary artists to draw inspiration from the feel-good nativity. How predictable, then, that the subsequent death of Jesus, with its grim implications for human nature, proves so much more inspiring.

Works that have resounded far beyond the art world include Andre Serrano’s photo of a crucifix submerged in urine and Chris Burden being nailed to the bonnet of a Volkswagen.

Such acts are worth bearing in mind when you come across the warm glow of yet another stable from the history of art. And speaking of glows, it is little surprise that a notorious purveyor of kitsch is also the most seasonal of artists.

That would be Thomas Kinkade, Painter of Light™; his fairytale woodland cabins all have something of the Flight to Egypt about them. And what’s more, there’s even a festive biopic called Christmas Cottage. It is hard to imagine such a thing from, say, The Chapman Brothers.

But even something as inoffensive as the clean lines of a modernist sculpture can still annoy traditionalists. In 2011, the Grand Place in Brussels played host to a 25m tree made from screens.

The city Tourist Board was under the impression this is what visitors would like: an all-singing, all-dancing tower of projection art. It was certainly a bit more watchable than your average tree. But thought provoking? Possibly, not.

If anything, it just proves that contemporary artists should leave Christmas well alone. On these shores the last word must go to Giorgio Sadotti, who supplied Tate Britain with their last tree in 2010.

It sat there undecorated until the 12th day. Then a circus performer took up a bullwhip and thrashed any last remnants of yuletide spirit from the building. Those attempting last minute shopping this weekend may come to understand that venom.

Visit Mark Sheerin's contemporary art blog and follow him on Twitter.

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