Recently, myself and a couple of friends were asked to create an installation piece as part of 107 Projects‘ end of year show. The group exhibition, titled The Christmas Show, was built around the theme of what the Christmas tree means to us in Australia.
For those in the northern hemisphere that are used to a white Christmas, the festive season in Australia is quite a different beast. We have a strange relationship with plastic trees covered almost entirely in gaudy decorations, almost as if the tree itself were an afterthought. Even worse than the fake plastic trees, is buying a harvested tree for the weeks leading up to Christmas, only to be discarded by New Years Eve. It was this strange relationship with the tree that we wanted to address in our installation.
We threw around a few ideas, but most of all we wanted to work at a larger scale and with light. In the end, we came upon the concept of the ‘memory’ or ‘ghost’: celebrating the life of the tree before it was cut down to become a temporary decoration in the home.
The first idea was to put miniature trees behind acrylic and silhouette them, much like a standard lightbox (above). This wasn’t particularly successful, with the LEDs I was using probably not quite the right lighting to get the effect we were after. Being limited with both time and money, the LED modules I put together were a fairly simple affair, with each tree getting 8 white LEDs, attached to a 555 timer to create a ‘breathing’ effect and powered by a 9V wall adapter. This is the simple tutorial that I based the circuits on.
After trying a few different arrangements, we decided that lighting from above was the most interesting effect, giving the model tree a kind of hyperrealistic appearance. We also ditched the acrylic altogether, in favor of removing any kind of barrier between the model and the viewer. The trees themselves were made from electrical wire. Quite a simple process, I cut sections of an extension lead and stripped the insulating plastic from the wire. Starting at the ‘trunk’ of the tree, I twisted the wire around itself, and separated ‘branches’ as I worked my way up the tree. You can find plenty of tutorials for this common method online.
The most time consuming part of the process was definitely the woodwork. We were fortunate enough to find an arborist that was cutting down a very large (and very amazing) Australian brush box tree. Taking 5 sections of stool-length timber, we finely sanded one end for sitting on and cut a hole in the side of each to house the tree and lighting.
Each stump took between 2 and 3hrs to complete the woodwork; with the brush box being such a hard timber, it was pretty slow going. Having said that, it was nice to be able to do some physical work (sans computer) and we were fortunate that Ezra had a friend who let us use their amazing woodwork shop.
Once the woodwork was done, the model trees were installed in each stump, along with fake moss and a lighting module in each. We were happy with the result, with each stump being quite unique and having its own character (the speed of each lighting ‘breath’ was deliberately different, to create a campfire effect when the 5 stumps were placed together).
During the exhibition, we had some great feedback and it was nice to see people sitting on the stumps and chatting. Much like sitting around the campfire, this was exactly what we had hoped for and something unique to an Australian summer Christmas.