‘Everything is going to be alright’. Walking my children to nursery along east London’s then ungentrified Lower Clapton Road, I passed this white neon sentence every morning for years. Thirteen metres long and half a metre high, installed across the entablature of the Portico, a derelict neoclassical structure that had once been part of the London Orphan Asylum, Martin Creed’s ‘Work No. 203’ (1999), his first ever neon, was a much-loved local paradox: an uplifting assurance of a brighter future and a platitude exposing the dark seam of anxiety that ran through Murder Mile. Creed conceded that he had been depressed when he made it but that it was meant optimistically, and it is this ambivalence that gives neon art its power.
Meaning is suspended; the words seem to offer a direct line to the artist, prompting a response in the viewer, but they are also open-ended: what does he mean by this, what does it mean to me? In retrospect, ‘Work No. 203’ anticipated the rapacious gentrification waiting to engulf Clapton. Hipster boutiques, sourdough pizza restaurants and craft beer shops are edging out barbers, nail bars and cut-price off-licences. Perhaps Creed should put up a new sign: ‘Be careful what you wish for.’
Joseph Kosuth, whose neon retrospective opened in November at Sprüth Magers London, describes neon as a form of ‘public writing’ without fine art associations. Whether the artist has plucked words from his imagination or appropriated them — Kosuth has used text by Freud and Beckett — neon belongs to us, to our streets, to the collective imagination; it feels modern and exciting, yet old-school and nostalgic; it taps into our complex experience of the urban environment and our capacity for hope. ‘Neon is emotional for everybody,’ says Tracey Emin. ‘Margate had what we called the Golden Mile. It was like a mini Las Vegas.’ For her first museum show in the US in December 2013, Angel Without You, Emin exhibited over 60 neon works at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Miami. ‘It was such a great feeling to have so much neon in one place. The neon and argon gases make us feel positive, that’s why you have neon at funfairs, casinos, red-light districts and bars. It’s also to do with the way it electronically pulsates around the glass, it’s a feelgood factor. Neon can help people who suffer from depression.’
Creed, who won the Turner Prize in 2001 for his ‘The Lights Going On and Off’, has said neon works are more ‘there’ than other work, ‘the neons are much more separate, in a way they’re more like paintings’.
‘Neon works tend to look like you could buy them off a shelf, like found objects,’ says Gavin Turk. The key piece at Turk’s current exhibition, We Are One, at Roche Court, is the outline of an open door. ‘It’s slightly ajar, ambiguous, a tease — is there something on the other side? Because neon is a threshold, it’s the sign above a shop door, commercial yet symbolic.’ Turk’s neon works appear to be straightforward illustrations — a candle, a match, a lobster — but they are full of jokes and art history references. The lit match references Magritte’s ‘The Treachery of Images (This is not a Pipe)’, and the lobster is ‘something you might find outside a Surrealist café full of artists arguing about the meaning of life. But there are probably hundreds of neon lobsters advertising seafood restaurants all over the world.’ Art fairs and biennales are heaving with neon, from Mario Merz, Keith Sonnier, Bruce Nauman, Dan Flavin, Noble & Webster and Tracey Emin, to Shezad Dawood, Jung Lee and Ivan -Navarro.
The late Chris Bracey, who owned Europe’s biggest collection of vintage neon, God’s Own Junkyard, began working with glass tubing 40 years ago, apprenticed to his sign-maker father. Described by Emin as ‘a pioneer of neon’, Bracey sought out Paul Raymond and went on to ‘light every sex establishment in Soho for 20 years’. Bracey worked with artists including Creed — for whom he made the sign ‘The Whole World + The Work = The Whole World’, installed on the front of Tate Britain in 2000 — and exhibited his own work last year, I’ve Looked up to Heaven and Been Down to Hell, at London’s Scream gallery.
Bracey said a visit to Bruce Nauman’s 1997 solo exhibition at the Hayward gallery let him see as art the neon signs of his father’s Walthamstow workshop. Hauser & Wirth’s 2013 London show, Bruce Nauman/mindfuck, examined Nauman’s neons in psychoanalytical terms. His diptych, ‘Run from Fear/ Fun from Rear’, uses jokey Freudian slippage but there is implicit trauma and the deceptively simple phrases glow like repressed thoughts bursting from the subconscious. Neon sculptures such as ‘Sex and Death/Double “69” ’ (1985) certainly fulfil his wish ‘to make art that is all there at once… like getting hit in the back of the neck with a baseball bat’. Kosuth takes a gentler approach, converting Freud’s text into cobalt-blue neon and fabricating fragments of Waiting for Godot in warm, white neon dipped in black paint. But it’s Tim Noble & Sue Webster’s counter-cultural, punk aesthetic that seems to best capture neon’s paradoxes, with works such as ‘Nihilistic/Optimistic’, ‘fuckingbeautiful’, and word sculptures ‘Girlfriend From Hell’ and ‘Puny Undernourished Kid’. Or Emin’s mournful Margate lament: ‘I Listen to the Ocean and All I Hear Is You’. ‘I would really like the lights to come back to Margate,’ she says. ‘I honestly feel that neon should be listed.’