We see neon light all around us. Different shapes and words adorn museum and gallery walls, instagrams feeds, pop up shops and trendy bars - but what exactly is neon lighting and in what sense is it considered art?
Neon lighting is created using sealed glass tubes or bulbs filled with one of a number of gases at low pressure. When a high voltage current is applied through metal electrodes, the gas is ionised causing it to emit coloured light. The colour of the light is dependent on the gas in the tube. Neon lights were named after neon, a noble gas which gives off a popular orange light. However, other colours can be produced through the use of hydrogen (red), helium (yellow), carbon dioxide (white), and mercury (blue) for example.
Neon lighting has been incorporated into artwork over the last 30 / 40 years and typically takes the form of installation artwork or sculptures.
Neon was first discovered by British scientists William Ramsay and Morris W. Travers in 1898, and the technology was further developed by French engineer George Claude in the early 20th century. Neon lighting was widely adopted for commercial use throughout the 1920s until the 1950s to create dazzling signages for advertisements. It was most popular in the United States, and became an important icon of American cityscapes. The famous visuals of New York City’s Times Square and the Las Vegas Strip became emblems of the country’s optimism about urban modernity.
While the use of neon lighting has become less fashionable for commercial use since its heyday in the first half of the 20th century, it has seen a resurgence of popularity amongst artists. Since the 1980s, artists have employed neon lighting as an art form to critique the promises of modernity. The material is fitting to challenge the excesses of material culture - given its fragile nature, it fosters ideas about vulnerability and uncertainty as a commentary on the post-modern dystopia that commercialism caused.
Many artists have experimented with the medium, creating sculptural installations by forming the neon tubes into shapes and words. For example, Tracey Emin writes poetic and emotive texts with letters shaped in her own handwriting. Joseph Kosuth uses neon to explore language as an enclosed system. Similarly, Bruce Nauman investigates language by creating installations of metaphors and play on words in different flashing sequences. Moreover, Dan Flavin creates site-specific and immersive installations that explore how light transforms space.
The art genre has become so important in the History of American Art that multiple museums have opened across the country dedicated to neon lighting and art. The Museum of Neon Art in Los Angeles, the Neon Museum in Las Vegas, the American Sign Museum in Cincinnati, and the Neon Museum of Philadelphia are amongst the most prominent.
Joseph Kosuths - Neon Word Play, 2015
Multiple neon installations
Bruce Nauman - One Hundred Live and Die (1984)
Multiple neon signs
Courtesy of I lobo you
Tracey Emin - The Kiss Was Beautiful, 2013
Neon -115.8 x 126.2 cm
© Tracey Emin Studio 2018
Be the first to find out about new collections, exhibitions and artwork. Get exclusive content delivered straight to your inbox.