Hang the Christmas tree

Feel a surfeit of goodwill coming on? Apprehensive about an embarrassme nt of simple-minded seasonal rejoicing? A visit to the Tate Gallery will put you right. There Christmas misery can be guaranteed. By Andrew Graham- Dixon

Like the Puritans, who wanted to abolish Christmas, contemporary artists seem to have an inherent distrust of festivities. Educated, as so many of them are, to believe that it is their job to see through the shams and self-deceptions of society (to interrogate and deconstruct the ruling paradigms of contemporary discourse), they may feel almost duty bound to disapprove of Yuletide revelry. Christmas is not to be celebrated, in art, but anatomised - to be exposed as a delusory device for promoting consumer spending and thus furthering the interests of corporate capitalism; or to be "critiqued" (a term much favoured in art school seminaries today) according to some other, equally Scrooge-like Marxist-deconstructivist pattern of received ideas. This probably explains why the Tate Gallery's sweetly optimistic policy of inviting a different contemporary artist each year to decorate the gallery Christmas tree has produced such mixed results.

Each Christmas during the past nine years, various artists have brought varying degrees of energy to this commission; and on each occasion the Tate's press office has exhibited great (perhaps even heroic) ingenuity in describing and justifying the results - producing in the process one or two genuinely remarkable passages of prose. In 1989, for instance, Tim Head's dystopian Christmas tree was memorably described thus:

"Since the early 1980s Head's work has explored the relation of the natural and the man-made and this is reflected in his Christmas tree installation ... Although a magpie appears to perch on top of the tree, the bird is dead and is being used as an ornament. This leads us to the awareness that the tree is also dead, having been felled and moved to an alien environment ... In this way Head's presentation of a traditional symbol of Christmas comments on the ecological implications of the consumer society."

The tree in question has, of course, long been disposed of but in those matchless few words, preserved for ever in the Tate's Christmas Tree Installation Press Release Archive, it has attained immortality of a kind. There are even those, fine connoisseurs of the press release and the gallery hand- out, who claim to find this short text superior to the object which it describes.

The year before, in the very first Christmas tree installation, Bill Woodrow had demonstrated somewhat similar killjoy instincts by decorating his tree with maps, a device "which, rather than simply focusing on Christmas, is concerned with the present condition of the world, and presents an ecological view of the planet".

Since then, and since Head's Christmas-tree-as-critique-of-consumer-society, complete with dead magpie, numerous other strategies have been attempted. In 1993, for instance, Shirazeh Houshiary suspended her Tate tree upside- down and painted its roots in gold leaf ("She has described her tree for the Tate Gallery as `taking earth back to heaven', which refers to her interest in astronomy, mysticism, and the interplay between light and dark"); while, the following year, Cathy de Monchaux ("Her seductive and meticulously executed sculpture has been characterised by the use of sumptuous materials such as suede, silk ribbon, glass and leather") turned the tree into a kind of fetish object by wrapping it in canvas and blue velvet. In retrospect, those now seem like positively feisty, joyful responses to the commission.

This festive season, with Julian Opie's so-called Christmas Forest, the Tate's Christmas tree installation would appear to have come full circle. Opie's contribution is presented as a bold new departure, in that he has chosen "not to simply decorate a tree, but to create a whole forest by constructing a number of model trees". (This, it ought to be said, represents something of an exaggeration, unless five trees standing in the Tate Rotunda may be said to constitute a forest). The significance of said work is explained thus, in prose hauntingly reminiscent of the vintage 1989 Christmas tree press release:

"Opie's Christmas trees are constructed from two intersecting planes of wood; they are highly stylised yet their serrated outline makes them instantly recognisable as fir trees. Viewed individually, they represent oversized children's toys ... If Opie thus creates a `forest', it is of artificial trees, whose originals furthermore are cultivated as a crop and are thus to an extent unnatural themselves."

In other words (or at least so it would seem) Opie's Christmas Forest exists to disturb rather than to enhance the festive mood, to make us look behind the myths of Christmas and see it for what it has become - a manufactured event, a piece of artifice as lightweight as Opie's own plywood simulacra of fir trees. What a stern, Calvinistic message the Tate's Christmas tree so often seems to be preaching. How sombre it makes the museum appear.

While there are still so many artists to get through, the Tate seems unlikely to abandon the scheme, although it is difficult to imagine things getting any cheerier. We can doubtless look forward to Damien Hirst's Christmas Tree Divided ("Hirst's tree, vertically bisected with the use of a chainsaw, is a memento mori: a reminder that Christmas is a time of death as well as celebration..."); to Jake and Dinos Chapman's Christmas Tree, after Goya's "Massacres of War" ("instead of the usual baubles and gewgaws, the artists have strung mutilated human corpses made out of shop mannequins from the branches of their tree, alluding to the immutable links between spectacle and violence"); and, of course, to Antony Gormley's Christmas Forest for the British Isles ("10,000 bonsai firs arranged to fill the whole of the Duveen Galleries"). Happy Christmasn

The Tabloid timetable

The Tabloid is taking a Christmas break until Thursday 2 January - but fret not, for until then your favourite columnists and our special holiday features will appear in the main paper. Highlights include a Boxing Day round-up by our critics of the moments that made the year, and on Friday and Monday the dazzling wit and skill of the winning writers in our Miss Nomer competition. Then on New Year's Day comes the news you'll all be longing to hear - in a bumper diary entry - how was Christmas for Bridget Jones?

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