Tate Britain: Dreaming of a Weird Christmas

Since 1988, London’s Tate Britain gallery has shattered dreams of white Christmases, and replaced them with dreams of a weird Christmas. While 2017’s light installation by Alan Kane was relatively traditional, even tame, 2018’s giant leopard slugs by Monster Chetwynd took it to the next level.

Initially, the gallery invited a celebrated artist to decorate its tree, but made a departure from that tradition with its invitation to Kane. He was asked to install Christmas lights on the gallery’s façade, which seems to have been the start of a new tradition, continued this season by Chetwynd.

Slimy Symbols of Renewal

The two slug sculptures, each more than 10m long, erected outside the gallery are made of wicker and hessian, while the ‘slime trails’ across the building are white and blue LED cables. The installation left most onlookers slightly puzzled, if not totally mystified, as it appears to have absolutely nothing to do with the festive season.

However, according to Glasgow-based Chetwynd, it is a reminder that renewal and rebirth can take place even in the darkness and cold of winter. According to reports, the artist said the work had been inspired by a David Attenborough documentary that shed light on leopard slugs’ mating ritual.

The ritual involves one slug following the slime trail of another, the two climbing a tree and hanging from mucus strands, and shooting bioluminescent male organs into one other, fertilizing each other.

The report added that the artist had wanted to create an artwork about the role of bioluminescence and alternative energy in the future. It also stated that Chetwynd said the piece was not necessarily connected to Christianity, but still was celebratory.

Tate Britain director Alex Farquharson said the slug installation was unique. It certainly was, considering Kane’s 2017 installation that depicted traditional seasonal decorations such as nativity scenes, stars, Father Christmas, holly, bells, and snowflakes. The slugs will be on display until 25 February.

Previous Christmas Commissions

The slug display was not the first time the gallery has given onlookers something to think about during the festive season. When it still commissioned artists to decorate a tree, Tate’s contemporary British art curator Clarrie Wallis said doing so brought conceptual art closer to the wider world.

This is not unlike the way online brought bookies closer to punters, or social media brought celebrities closer to their fans.

Among some of the previous unusual Christmas decorations and art installations include 1988’s pine decorated with maps and cardboard objects, and topped with a globe, by Bill Woodrow, and 1997’s broken decorations, ripped wrapping paper, and empty bottles in a rubbish skip by Michael Landy.

That was not the least of it, because 2001 saw the tree wrapped in West African batik by Yinka Shonibare, and in 2002, Tracy Emin donated the tree to charity, and replaced it with a notice board.

In 2008, Bob and Roberta Smith hung fairy lights that were lit by electricity produced by gallery visitors riding pushbikes, and in 2010, Giorgio Sadotti left the tree undecorated. Who knows what 2019’s commission will bring.