Hiking through the neon forest

“The neon forest is lighting up my brain,” Iggy Pop.

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

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

And 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 nighttime bus tour through Downtown and Hollywood that has been running since 1985.

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

It’s not just LA where neon’s uniquely contradictory character is now being celebrated. Nearby Las Vegas boasts its own Neon Museum, which features a “neon boneyard”, with a carefully curated collection of old illuminated signs. It’s a not-for-profit operation, but popular enough to be awarded almost half a million dollars this year from city worthies to finance its expansion.

Across the Atlantic, the London district of Soho once contained more garishly lit strip club doorways than anywhere else in England. 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 switch-flicking 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. It’s 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 a rather 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 all 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, adding its popularity among visual artists peaked in the 1980s.

“It was a time when Melrose [Avenue] was happening and there was a lot 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. To create the most dazzling spectacle in neon tubing became something of a competitive sport.

As the world turned on, through two global conflicts and economic crisis, 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 from the Hoover Dam needed a city in easy reach in which to unwind. Nevada had recently legalised gambling, and was more than happy to welcome the cashed-up blue collar visitors. There, the neon light found its zenith, a vision shouting “Look at me! Look at me!”.

neon always symbolised the chance for power and money to those who had neither

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

The lights, thus, developed two meanings in the late twentieth century. The first was an unironic proclamation of attention-seeking 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 directly 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 the gas is trendy again. Economic inequality and disenfranchisement have not gone away, and neon has always symbolised the chance for power and money to those who had neither.

Celebrated at first as a marvel of nature, neon’s glowing light quickly became a symbol of everything unnatural, and perhaps an apt image for the cons of our current society.

It may disappear from the real world of advertising in favour of jumbotrons and LED, flickering on only within museums and galleries – but as long it continues to both represent the underlying structural problems of our society and illuminate them by its light, neon will continue to shine.

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