Think you know neon? Think again. As neon lights are going out across the globe, it’s time to put it in the spotlight.
First, let’s talk about light. As far as neon goes, you can have any color you like, as long as it’s orange. That’s because (let’s get the science bit out of the way first) neon only produces a reddy-orange glow when it absorbs energy and its atoms become all excited.
Think of the Northern Lights – exactly the same thing is happening there. The multicolored lightshow of the aurora borealis (or the aurora australis, down south) is the result of collisions between fast moving electrons in the Earth’s magnetosphere. These collisions energize the elements, releasing tiny packets of light called photons (light beams, essentially) of varying colors. Oxygen emits greenish-yellow or red light, while nitrogen generally gives off blue light. Together, they create purple, pink, and white.
Neon gives off a deep orangey glow but other noble gasses (those elusive gasses that make up less than 1% of the air that we breathe) shine differently, depending on their chemical make-up. Argon shines blue, xenon is close to the spectrum of bright daylight (it’s used in car headlights), krypton green. Mixing them up gives a whole rainbow of colors. Argon and xenon gives purple, for example.
There’s something futuristic, something of the Bladerunner about Neon’s flickering glow. But for how long? Hong Kong’s banned neon: and is systematically embarking on a complete removal. Campaigners for dark skies are winning ground even in LA, where no new lights can be installed unless they can prove they don’t add to the city’s light pollution. And that means: no new neon.
So, before we see the big neon closing sign lit up for the last time, let’s salute the wonderful ways in which neon has lighted up our lives:
Andy Warhol was one of the first artists to run amok with the neon color book, saturating his Marylin screenprints in that day-glo hue so influenced by neon. In the 1980’s Austrian artist Brigitte Kowanz played with light and form in her arresting neon installations, creating immersive, Op-art like structures. Tracey Emin’s work heavily features neon slogans, glowing in galleries (and even places like Liverpool Cathedral) around the world. Artists such as Gavin Turk creates iconic pieces of art such as One Twenty Five – a red neon nail, positioned so that it, and its shadow, appear as the time 01:25 would on a clock face. Turk’s most famous ‘nail’ is the permanent 12-metre bronze sculpture, Nail, positioned at the entrance of One New Change shopping center in London.
The 80s were almost exclusive brought to us by neon – vivid jelly shoes, Dolce and Gabbana lime and livid accessories, acid greens and electric blues courtesy of new day-glo fabric technology. Subtle it wasn’t. In the 1990s neon went counterculture: think, glitter, glow sticks and the vivid yellow smiley ‘acid’ face. Very neon. For the millennials, labels like American Apparel, Urban Outfitters, Kanye West and his posse, reinvigorated the neon look. Vogue’s editor, Anna Wintour famously said ‘I’ve never really been into neon’: but, for a new breed of cool kids, turning it up is where it’s at. Look at Jeremy Scott’s high neon camo boots for Adidas (loved by Bjork) and you know: the future’s so bright, shades are a staple in any trendsetter’s wardrobe.
From Boy George’s electric blue hair in the 80s to the Max Headroom head-rush of neon-striped virtual studios, and the blue plasma flashes of Dire Straits’ Money For Nothing, the 80s loved neon. Whether it was playing to neon’s seedy side (the flickering red lights of London’s Soho on Soft Cell’s Non Stop Erotic Cabaret) or the sleek, futuristic and iconic Top of The Pops logo, neon could always be relied upon to add an elicit sheen to electronic music. The two seem almost interchangeable. There’s something about the unnatural colors, the fizz and crackle of the tubes, the association with after dark activities that suits bands drawn to it – like Arcade Fire’s Neon Bible, Blur’s Magic Whip and current darlings, The 1975.
Northwest England’s seaside resort, Blackpool, is no shrinking violet. Every autumn it pushes the dark evenings back with a gaudy display of promenade illuminations. This year, LightPool adds a touch of modern culture too: with some of Europe’s best light artists lighting the way. Neon: The Charged Line features light installations from Emin and co at the town’s Grundy Gallery, and LightPool, a £2.4m project to support the centuries-old light display of the northern seaside resort. “There is definitely something enduringly magical about light – we can’t help but be drawn to it,” Curator Richard Parry says, “perhaps we are all moths at heart.”
Neon: The Charged Line is at Grundy Art Gallery, Blackpool from September 1, 2016 – January 7, 2017.