Kew at Christmas and the Killing of Culture

Alex Haydn-Williams 13 January 2020
Image Credit: Flickr

Overhead hang little lines of bulbs shifting colour, wires hidden by the night sky. From hidden speakers, Walking in a Winter Wonderland plays, bombastic and tinny. You’re almost convinced that, after a few too many eggnogs, you’ve fallen through the TV screen and into your own Christmas movie. One of those saccharine, plotless ones that ITV play on the 25th, after Paul O’Grady: For the Love of Dogs.

You’re almost convinced. But, just as you pass from the range of one speaker to the next, your illusion is punctured. There’s a weird moment when you hear one, then both, then the next one; it’s like putting your head between the speakers when a studio-channel track is playing. The sound  zooms across your ears, and if you step a pace back, it zooms backwards with you. With that, you realise that the environment you’re in is fundamentally artificial.

Almost convincing, almost real. Welcome to one of London’s favourite Christmas events.

Not Winter Wonderland.

Nobody likes Winter Wonderland.

This is the seventh year of Christmas at Kew, and it’s very different to the first one. There are still arches of lights above the paths, illuminated baubles hanging from leafless trees, groups of families staring upwards, the creation of hangovers and neck strain. It sold out weeks in advance again. It’s taken over more of Kew Gardens this year, and is ‘more twinkling and fantastical than ever before’, according to the website.


The light installations in Kew Gardens. Image credit: Wikipedia Commons.


But the main difference is in how people respond to this kind of spectacle. People had cameras on their phones in 2013, when the now-annual illuminations first sprung up. People had Instagram too. Some people, your trusty correspondent included, Instagrammed photos of the illuminations. (Lights reflected in the lake #kewatnight #kewgardens). My captions have got better since.

But now, people have Instagram stories, people have more followers, people have cameras capable of photographing the lights, people who were on their parents’ shoulders when they came in 2013 are on Snapchat, people have a clearer sense of what it means to project a digital identity. And so the number of photos has skyrocketed. #christmasatkew2013 has zero posts; 2019 already has 242. Those are very niche hashtags though, ones for the sort of people who still put #f4f under every post, hence the low numbers (without a year at the end, there’s 47,537). But it’s illustrative of a wider trend. So are the illuminated giant frames and neon crackers you come across while walking between light shows, literally designed to be photographed and uploaded. They’re physical objects that exist solely for a virtual reality, a weird, liminal embodiment of the experience economy.

This rather magical kingdom of a million lights in the night — fulfilling a very human desire for illumination, warmth and crowds in the long nights of December — is spectacular. It also happens to be eminently suited to Instagram stories, and designed to be so. Like Olafur Eliasson’s Din blinde passager (Your blind passenger), the orange, fog-filled room originally created in 2010, which you’ll recognise from every single Londoner’s Instagram this summer, the nighttime illuminations were created just at the advent of social media culture, but have found new life — and new popularity — thanks to their accidental storyability. The entertainment sector is swiftly becoming the experience sector, providing sights to dazzle the eyes — and the multi-megapixel sensor. Nicholas Mirzoeff’s comment that in the modern world, “Visual culture … is not just part of your everyday life, it is your everyday life” has never been truer. [1]

A desire to be seen at a destination event is, however, hardly a new thing for Londoners. If there had been smartphones at Vauxhall Pleasure Gardens, you can bet your tricorn hat the Georgians would have been location-tagging it on their stories. I’m also being a bit of an overly-cynical Scrooge — Christmas at Kew is an essential source of winter income for the Gardens; and when your principal attractions are flowers and plants, winter is naturally difficult.

It’s no accident that Christmas at Kew began in 2013, when the Gardens was facing a huge financial crisis caused by cuts under the coalition government’s austerity programme. [2] One of the alternatives was the nuclear option shutting the Gardens to the public in winter. Kew’s a hugely important centre for scientific research, as well as a botanical garden — in an era on the verge of climate collapse, more haunted by the Ghost of Christmas Future than ever before, it has never been more important to fund the work of Kew’s biologists. They might just save lives: of plants, and of humans.

So I think we can tolerate the social-media-friendly nightscape of Christmas at Kew, sponsored by DS Automobiles; it’s not actually replacing anything, because Kew is closed at night anyway, and it’s bringing quite a lot of people some festive joy. But we shouldn’t forget that Kew Gardens is a flagship in the public arts sector. It’s high-profile enough to be able to make money through a clever innovation like the Christmas lights.

Youth clubs can’t charge £15 for entry. Small-town theatres can’t host festive food villages.

Photography galleries can’t drape a waterfall of light off the Treetop Walkway.

The attitude that devotees of Post-Fordist capitalism — like, say, our present government — take toward the arts is summed up in an anecdote about Thatcher, recounted by Michael Billington: ‘on one of the many occasions when she took Peter Hall to task for complaining, as director of the National Theatre, about arts underfunding, she pointed to the popularity of British theatre the world over. “Look,” she said with menacing, jabbing finger, “at Andrew Lloyd Webber”.’ [3]

The idea is simple: we don’t believe that your art is valuable; make art that will draw the crowds. As Mark Fisher pointed out, culture has become turgid and backward-looking since the collapse of British social democracy: ‘neoliberal capitalism has gradually but systematically deprived artists of the resources necessary to produce the new’. [4] The near-constant headlines about state schools cutting their arts provision to the bone should be considered a national crisis. Participation in the arts boosts almost every aspect of a society. But now, only those wealthy enough to create art without wage will be able to participate. Only the largely London-based enterprises big enough to maintain a healthy commercial arm will be able to thrive, while everyone else suffers, dials back their operations, closes, quits.

Culture in this country is in crisis. That much was summed up by joint Turner Prize winners Tai Shani and Helen Cammock’s reaction to a BBC reporter asking what they would do with their £10,000 prize. They looked a little incredulous. “Use it to live on.” “I’m not rich.” [5] Two of Britain’s most successful upcoming artists — winners of the biggest prize in modern art — without a proper salary between them.

It’s another reason to mourn the spectre of the Labour government that could have been. Instead of a ‘£1 billion Cultural Capital Fund to transform libraries, museums and galleries across the country’, consulting on ‘ways to address the gender imbalance in the digital creative industries’, and a commitment to ‘make creative jobs accessible for all’, we’re landed with the genuinely absurd Festival of Brexit. [6] If we ever needed proof of Mark Fisher’s idea that culture has no future anymore, and instead ‘cultural time has folded back on itself’, Johnson’s Crayola-scrawled pastiche of the Festival of Britain will provide it. [7] [8]

There’s a regrettable cliché that periods of bad government make for good art — which seems to lead to the idea that eight years of Reagan were worth it for the Dead Kennedys, or that we can tolerate five years more suffering and hardship under the Tories, given that Ken Loach might make another film. The opposite is true. Neoliberalism and artistic flourishing are simply incompatible. Anything that has a non-monetary value, like art, goes out with the bathwater. Tai Shani wasn’t wearing a TORIES OUT necklace to the Turner Prize ceremony for nothing.

If, then, you need an escape in the midst of this exceptionally bleak midwinter, I might have just the place for you. It’s Bakhtin’s carnival in a digital capitalist world. It’s a ‘twinkling and fantastical’ Christmas fairytale with £5.50 Pumpkin Hot Chocolate. I’d tell you to go to Christmas at Kew, but it’s already sold out.


[1] Nicholas Mirzoeff, The Visual Culture Reader (1998), p. 3.
[4] Mark Fisher, Ghosts of My Life (2014), p. 15.
[7] Ghosts of My Life, p. 9.