— Books, tele­vi­sion, gad­gets, col­lec­tions

Neon – the com­bi­na­tion of an in­ert gas and an elec­tri­cal cur­rent – has ex­pressed our basest de­sires and high­est as­pi­ra­tions for more than a cen­tury. JACK CONDIE dis­cov­ers that even in to­day’s Led-soaked world, neon still shines bright.

Cosmos - - Contents - IM­AGE Lulu Ble­witt / Ey­eem / Getty Im­ages

“THE NEON FOR­EST is light­ing up my

brain,” Iggy Pop.

“Neon is trendy again,” Kim Koga, ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Mu­seum of Neon Art (MONA) in Los An­ge­les, re­cently de­clared. Thirty-five years af­ter two LA artists es­tab­lished MONA to pre­serve and cel­e­brate their city’s iconic, and rapidly dis­ap­pear­ing, il­lu­mi­nated neon signs, Koga flicked on the lights at the mu­seum’s first per­ma­nent home in early 2016.

But for neon’s many fans, was this mar­riage of science and art ever out of style? Even as it dis­ap­pears from its tra­di­tional com­mer­cial ap­pli­ca­tions, neon con­tin­ues to evoke a cer­tain aes­thetic: shady mo­tels on desert high­ways, emo­tion­ally cold bea­cons in the ur­ban jun­gle, or gaudy bling call­ing the pun­ters to prayer on nightlife strips from Las Ve­gas to Kings Cross.

The hunger to put neon in the con­text of 20th cen­tury cul­tural his­tory re­mains strong, judg­ing by the pop­u­lar­ity of MONA’S Neon Cruise – a night-time bus tour through down­town and Hol­ly­wood that has been run­ning since 1985.

It’s a stub­born, util­i­tar­ian and seedy nos­tal­gia which to­day trans­forms into art that si­mul­ta­ne­ously trans­gresses and re­as­sures.

It’s not just LA where neon’s uniquely con­tra­dic­tory char­ac­ter is cel­e­brated. Las Ve­gas boasts its own Neon Mu­seum, with a care­fully cu­rated “neon bone­yard” of old il­lu­mi­nated signs. Across the At­lantic, the Lon­don dis­trict of Soho once con­tained more gar­ishly lit strip-club door­ways than any­where else in Bri­tain. Th­ese days it’s all a bit more gen­tri­fied, and neon’s role has moved rather more up­mar­ket. Lo­cal art gallery Lights of Soho teamed up with long-stand­ing sig­nage busi­ness God’s Own Junk­yard to pro­duce a se­ries of il­lu­mi­na­tions for the Christ­mas pe­riod. Ac­tor Joanna Lum­ley did the switch­flick­ing hon­ours.

Neon, an in­ven­tion of 19th cen­tury chem­istry, may have ac­quired a cer­tain re­spectabil­ity with age, but one place where neon re­tains its dan­ger­ous edge is in fic­tion, es­pe­cially 20th cen­tury Amer­i­can fic­tion, from F. Scott Fitzger­ald to Joan Did­ion. Its evoca­tive at­trac­tion to nov­el­ists never wanes; wit­ness John Kennedy Toole’s The Neon Bi­ble (1954), John D. Mac­don­ald’s The Neon Jun­gle (1984), and James Lee Burke’s The Neon Rain (2005).

It has al­ways pro­vided a rich seam of at­mo­spher­ics to be mined, as Christoph Rib­bat notes in his 2013 book Flick­er­ing Light: A His­tory Of Neon. “In the world of neon,” he writes, “writ­ers found what they were look­ing for: the would-be-naked, seem­ingly au­then­tic ex­is­tence of drunks, hook­ers, gam­blers and small-time crooks.”

Neon in it­self is an un­re­mark­able in­ert gas mak­ing up just 0.00046% of the air we breathe. But if you send an elec­tric dis­charge through its ionised form, some­thing re­mark­able hap­pens: it glows red-orange. Tech­ni­cally, this qual­ity is no dif­fer­ent from the other noble gases; ar­gon, he­lium, kryp­ton, and oth­ers can be made to glow if you zap them. It was neon, how­ever, that be­came em­blem­atic of the birth of the tech­no­log­i­cal era. Its very name is drawn from “neos”, the Greek word for “new”.

The science of neon is un­der­stood and sta­ble. The cul­ture of neon, on the other hand, is any­thing but.

“It def­i­nitely goes through cycles,” says MONA’S Koga, not­ing that neon’s pop­u­lar­ity among vis­ual artists last peaked in the 1980s. “It was a time when Mel­rose [Av­enue] was hap­pen­ing and there were a lot of new neon signs be­ing cre­ated there,” she told the LA Times in June 2016. “That trig­gered a sec­ond come­back. The in­dus­try in­tro­duced some new colours.”

The first neon light was de­vel­oped by Ge­orge Claude, a Parisian en­gi­neer and chemist, in 1910. It soon be­came a cheap and at­trac­tive op­tion for ad­ver­tis­ers and ar­chi­tects. Cre­at­ing the most daz­zling spec­ta­cle in neon tub­ing be­came some­thing of a com­pet­i­tive sport.

As the world con­tin­ued on, through two global con­flicts and eco­nomic crises, the Amer­i­can city – shin­ing bea­con of con­sumerism – was aban­doned by wealthy mid­dle classes who flocked to sub­ur­ban hubs, leav­ing the neon-lit ur­ban cen­tres to the un­der­class.

It is within this world that mod­ern Ve­gas was born. Work­ers build­ing the Hoover Dam needed some­where to un­wind. Ne­vada had re­cently le­galised gam­bling, and was more than happy to wel­come the cashed-up vis­i­tors. In Ve­gas the neon light found its zenith, a vi­sion shout­ing “Look at me! Look at me!”.


Los An­ge­les’ re­la­tion­ship with neon, Koga sug­gests, was born of sim­i­lar pur­pose. In a city built on spec­ta­cle and im­age, neon com­mu­ni­cated the mes­sage the clear­est and the loud­est.

The lights, thus, de­vel­oped two mean­ings in the late 20th cen­tury. The first was an unironic procla­ma­tion of at­ten­tion­seek­ing and he­do­nism, the glam­our and glitz that never quite left Amer­i­can cap­i­tal­ism. The sec­ond was as a mech­a­nism by which artists could ex­am­ine the first. In his 1947 col­lec­tion of short sto­ries,

The Neon Wilder­ness, Nel­son Al­gren jux­ta­poses the sur­vival of the un­der­class in Chicago with the vi­sion of the city con­jured by neon sig­nage. It cre­ates a world in which neon lights il­lu­mi­nate the lives of poor and marginalised com­mu­ni­ties.

Else­where, in the vis­ual arts, Tracy Emin’s neon works – a medium she adopted in the early 1990s – em­bla­zon per­sonal feel­ings in hum­ming bright­ness, break­ing down the bar­rier be­tween pub­lic and pri­vate. Neon has al­ways il­lu­mi­nated so­ci­ety’s shad­ows.

Hang­ing in the Smith­so­nian Amer­i­can Art Mu­seum, Nam June Paik’s 1995 in­stal­la­tion Elec­tronic Su­per­high­way: Con­ti­nen­tal U.S., Alaska, Hawaii con­structs the bound­aries of mod­ern Amer­ica en­tirely out of neon tub­ing. Each state is filled in with tele­vi­sion sets play­ing video im­agery, drawn from friends, col­lab­o­ra­tors and clas­sic movies. The work is an ex­pres­sion of mod­ern cul­ture and iden­tity, car­ried in vis­ual form across state bound­aries, yet all built on the foun­da­tions of neon. Per­haps it is this read­ing of neon that has led to sug­ges­tions that the gas is trendy again. Eco­nomic in­equal­ity has not gone away, and neon al­ways sym­bol­ised the chance for power and money to those who had nei­ther.

Neon’s glow­ing light may dis­ap­pear from the real world of ad­ver­tis­ing in favour of jum­botrons and LED, flick­er­ing on only within mu­se­ums and gal­leries, but as long as it con­tin­ues to both sym­bol­ise so­cial prob­lems and il­lu­mi­nate them by its light, neon will con­tinue to shine.

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