Tate Britain in Festive Christmas Tree Shocker

There have been strange developments recently at Tate Britain.

First we had a near controversy-free Turner Prize, won by a painter, Richard Wright, whose work could actually be described as beautiful.

Now, the Tate Christmas Tree 2009 has been put on show, "Weihnachtsbaum" by Tacita Dean (until December 23)—and it turns out, of all unexpected things, to be Christmassy. Indeed, it is a delightful, almost magical sight.

"So what?" you may ask. "Isn't Christmassy exactly what you'd expect a Christmas tree to be?" Well, no—not if it's in a contemporary-art gallery. There is a near-total disconnect between the cultural avant garde and the spirit of Christmas. The latter is traditional, cheery, joyous, and family oriented; the former, none of the above.

Consequently, over the 22 years the Tate has been commissioning these seasonal works, we've often been presented with the ideas of cutting-edge Scrooges—that, in a way, has been the fun of the thing.

At most, one festive quality has sometimes been present in Tate trees. Sarah Lucas's, for example, in 2006, was decorated with seedy, near-pornographic cherubs equipped with dangling genitalia. This was at least cheery. Fiona Banner's in 2007, entitled "Peace on Earth" and hung with model war planes, was more typical.

Dean's tree, on the other hand, ticks almost all the Christmas boxes (not vulgarity and self-indulgence, but one can't have everything). It consists of a living, 4-meter-high Nordman fir.

Breathing Gallery"It's nice," the artist says in an interview, "to have something breathing in the gallery."

This is embellished simply with yellow candles, in holders with spherical weights hanging beneath. These, Dean points out, were the origin of the now ubiquitous Christmas baubles.

At the top is a century-old German decoration Dean found in the flea market of Berlin, where she lives.

"German Christmas decorations are very beautiful," Dean says, "it's their thing."

Admittedly, at first it was difficult to see where the art bit came in all this. Then it became clear that Dean's idea verges on performance—she normally works in a variety of media, particularly film and was shortlisted for the Turner Prize in 1998.

Flame-ResistantAt the press view, a member of Tate staff appeared, wearing white overalls that looked as though they might be flame-resistant. Then he went away and came back in normal clothes, which was more festive.

Next, very slowly from a step ladder using a long, specialized implement, he lit the candles. This, though much slower than the runners who pounded through the same space last year in a work by Martin Creed, is a performance of a sort. This process will be repeated at the same time every day until Christmas.

If you think about it, this action verges on daring, and—favorite avant-garde word—â"transgressive," as it defies the ruling orthodoxy of health and safety. Dean's project involves naked flames burning in a public place, surrounded by a national collection of highly inflammable art.

The candles are 100 percent beeswax—which smell nice, don't drip or smoke and burn with a golden light. They last for about two hours, so they will be extinguished at 6 p.m. when the Tate closes. In contemporary-art jargon this also is a site- specific installation.

Even so, it's extremely pretty—and confusing. What can this startling outbreak of Christmas spirit at Tate possibly mean? Is it caused by the credit crunch? Is the zeitgeist changing? Perhaps we'll find out in the New Year.

(Martin Gayford is chief art critic for Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own.)

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