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Cities of Light

New York and London are Switched on for the Holidays

Holiday Barosaurs at the American Natural History Museum. Photo credit ©AMNH/D. Finnin

BY Christian Viveros-Fauné
art and culture critic

AND Louisa Buck
contemporary art correspondent

In Must See

Conventional art it isn’t, but there is definitely an art to over-the-top holiday displays. That virtuosity is, arguably, best cultivated in the US during December, in the aftermath of that other ur-American festival: Thanksgiving. If you are a light enthusiast and celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa or Festivus (this last agnostic tongue-in-cheek celebration boasts the ritual “airing of grievances” and an unadorned aluminum pole instead of a tree) then the United States is your electric Eden, and your high-wattage Mecca is New York.

It all started here

The island of Manhattan is justly celebrated for its seasonal light displays. Fittingly, New York was the home of the first electrified Christmas tree: In 1882, Edward Hibberd Johnson, Thomas Edison’s business partner, wired up the family fir with red, white and blue lights and placed his faux-burning bush in the parlor window.

One of the most recognized displays is the LED-lit, dinosaur-shaped Christmas spruces at the American Museum of Natural History. But festivities are not limited to museums: from the Brobdingnagian light displays in store windows along Fifth Avenue, the Big Apple offers a blaze of visual treats during the holidays, most notably the Rockefeller Center’s enormous 70ft-plus Christmas tree.

Get your skates on

Fireworks at the Bryant Park Tree Lighting Skate-tacular. Photo credit: Angela Cranford

The winter holidays mean Bryant Park, usually tucked peacefully behind the New York Public Library, is transformed into a Christmas village, including a 17,000 sq ft outdoor rink (bring your own skates or rent a pair for $20) and a 55ft Norway spruce decked out with more than 30,000 lights. There’s even a biergarten to take the edge off the Christmas cold.

Hit the heights

There is no competing with Dyker Heights, Brooklyn, for homemade Christmas lights displays. The Kings County neighborhood is home to what is far and away the most flamboyant razzle-dazzle show in the land. Since the 1980s, competition among homeowners has kept the neighborhood buzzing each December. Each year more than 100,000 people flock to catch the annual glut of glitz.

Christmas lights in Dyker Heights, Brooklyn. Photo credit Simon Leigh / Alamy Stock Photo

The attractions include a baroque profusion of inflatable Santas, singing snowmen and motorized deer lining front yards from 11th to 13th Avenues (also known as Dyker Heights Blvd), and from 83rd to 86th Street. Baptized by The New York Times as “Con Ed’s warmest heart-throb” and the “undisputed capital of Christmas pageantry”, the neighborhood’s larger-than-life holiday displays get bigger, brighter and camper each year. Rock Center? Fugheddaboutit!

Spruced up

Meanwhile, over the Pond, and perhaps as a response to the widespread anxiety about Brexit, London is being especially festive with its holiday season displays. For his tree at the Connaught hotel in Mayfair, Sir Michael Craig-Martin asked himself what are the two essential ingredients for a Christmas tree? His answer? “The tree itself and the lights”.

Michael Craig-Martin, The Connaught Christmas Tree (2018). Image courtesy of Maybourne Hotel Group

His tree is distilled down to these two basic components. The nine-meter-tall Norway spruce was meticulously selected from a cast of hundreds for its dense foliage and its conical shape before then being wrapped in a single strand of 12,000 bulbs for maximum illuminated effect.

The lights were then hooked up to a super-complicated computer program so that the tree is continually engulfed in what Craig-Martin describes as “a full palette of ever-changing colors”. The result—mesmerizing rainbow-hued washes of light—transforms a familiar Christmas tree into a dramatic kaleidoscopic beacon.

Slugging it out.

Winter Commission 2018: Monster Chetwynd
© Tate (Matt Greenwood & Seraphina Neville)

The night-time mating rituals of slugs are an unlikely theme for a festive light display but are indeed the inspiration for Tate Britain’s dramatic holiday decorations courtesy of Monster Chetwynd (formerly known as Marvin Gaye Chetwynd and Spartacus Chetwynd), an artist known for her exuberant mass-performances and flamboyant props.

Winter Commission 2018: Monster Chetwynd
© Tate (Matt Greenwood & Seraphina Neville)

Standing sentinel on either side of the museum’s main entrance are two giant leopard slugs, illuminated by LED rope lights. They appear to have slithered over the entire façade of the building, which is draped in swathes of snail trails glimmering with energy-efficient blue and white LEDs.

Apparently, leopard slugs emit a blue glow when they mate, an activity which usually takes place after dark with the creatures dangling from a glittering thread of slime. In these most unorthodox of seasonal decorations what is normally considered ugly and repulsive is here transformed into something quite wondrous.

A really green tree

Both the V&A’s collections and environmental awareness are this year celebrated in Aberrant Architecture’s family tree, which takes its sharply geometric pyramid shape from the cover of The Christmas Tree, a 1966 children’s book illustrated by Fredun Shapur that can be found in the museum’s holdings.

Twelve triangular windows set into the surface reveal laser-cut cardboard replicas of an array of toys and Christmas-related objects, also taken from the V&A’s collections. These range from a 19th-century rocking horse to a 1920s teddy bear and Christmas cracker and a 1970s wind-up tin reindeer.

The tree and its contents are all made from waste materials: with the colorfully-speckled top and bottom parts created using recycled plastic bottles and the blue middle section made from recycled paper. It is a timely, slightly sobering, reminder of the mountains of extra garbage generated during the festive season.

Aberrant Architecture, The V&A Family Tree (2018). Image courtesy of the Victoria and Albert Museum











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