Five controversial Christmas trees

  • 1 December 2014

Christmas trees might be the ultimate festive tradition, but they are also a source of subversive inspiration for a variety of artists – here are five of the best.

1. Pierre Vivant, Traffic Light Tree, 1995-8

This unusual public installation was originally unveiled in Westferry, before being found a new home in Canary Wharf. Featuring 75 sets of traffic lights it may look like the world’s worst junction, but is actually the work of artist Pierre Vivant. Closely resembling a Christmas tree, the rather festive flashing lights are meant to reflect the ‘never ending rhythm of the surrounding domestic, financial and commercial activities’ but have often incited complaints from drivers who find it confusing.

2. Michael Landy, Tate Britain Christmas Tree, 1997

For Tate’s annual Christmas tree installation Landy poked fun at the mindless consumerism often associated with the holiday. It featured a series of dead Christmas trees, torn wrapping paper, broken decorations and bin liners thrown into a rather festive red skip.

3. John Heartfield, O Christmas Tree in German Soil, How Crooked Are Your Branches, 1934

Political artist John Heartfield used satirical, surrealist photomontages to condemn Nazi ideology. In this arresting image, he railed against the new regime which had come to power the year before. Taking the well known German festive song ‘O Tannenbaum (Oh Christmas tree)’ as a title, his sparse and fragile branches mock the perceived might of the Nazi swastika, criticising Hitler’s oppressive and violent policies and highlighting their conflict with the Christmas message of peace and goodwill.

4. Paul McCarthy, Tree, 2014

Though not strictly a Christmas-specific fern, this October saw a public outcry in France after McCarthy’s giant inflatable installation was unveiled at the Place Vendôme in Paris. The abstracted sculpture resembled both a cartoonish tree and an anal plug. It incensed civilians so much that it was vandalised almost immediately, and even led to the artist being slapped in the face at the work’s inauguration.

5. Diane Arbus, Xmas tree in a living room, Levittown, L.I., 1963

Known for her photographs of the most marginalised members of society, Arbus’s controversial images showed a different side to American street photography. This eerie photograph depicts and oversized and flamboyantly decorated tree squashed into the corner of a sparsely furnished 1960s living room.

Tags: things-you-didnt-know-about-artists