The essay is now published on the SITE website, and can be downloaded as a PDF here. In the context of the work on VerySmallKitchen, it highlights a nexus of issues around neon text art, a critique of its dependence on commercial sign makers, and the alternatives available through engaging more fully with the medium.
The commission was also a chance to unfold some connections of art writing and reportage. This emerged as a response to how Richard’s project unfolded live in the gallery space, and how the best response seemed to be to spend time in the gallery, notebook in hand (like Tom Wolfe alongside Leonard Bernstein’s grand piano in Radical Chic, although minus the suit!).
Recent critical texts such as Chris Kraus’ splendid Where Art Belongs were also crucial in discovering the methodology of this text. My initial response to NEON LIGHTS had been a series of short fictional texts, only one of which is present in the version here. It was the reportage approach which I felt had balance of writer and artist appropriate to the project.
The essay begins:
Visitors to Richard William Wheater’s Neon Lights installation were asked for a word to be made into neon by the mobile neon making factory that occupied the SITE gallery for two weeks in December 2010. The words were written on the floor, then crossed out as they were turned into illuminated glass: SEX, MASSAGE, LAS VEGAS, BLADERUNNER, DISCO, and KEBAB. The neon imagination, it seems, has very particular ingredients, although not necessarily accurate. People think of Piccadilly Circus, Richard told me, although there is not any neon at Piccadilly Circus nowadays.
Richard’s own work has sought to think about neon as material rather than as sign. Trained as a glass maker, he founded Neon Workshops in 2008 to provide an artist friendly service for artists, and also to change a situation where most neon work in galleries is text commissioned from commercial sign makers. At the workshop, however, Richard works with skilled neon makers such as Julia Bickerstaff, who make the lettering. The proposal for Neon Lights would be Richard in the gallery for two weeks, doing everything himself. A neon installation by an artist poised between skilled professional and beginner.
The project took its title from Kraftwerk’s 1978 song, which whilst aware of the massage-scapes of neon’s Soho also expresses the character of the material itself. You don’t extrapolate at length in neon, so the (English) lyrics are repeated four times: neon lights/ shimmering neon lights/ and at the fall of night/ the city’s made of light. In the original video, which you can see on youtube, the members of Kraftwerk float in a black void, whilst the city’s neon signs float over and through them, sometimes appearing directly out of their foreheads.
Wheater’s proposal also made me write down the words from Bruce Nauman’s neon sculpture Human/Need/ Desire (1983). Nauman’s neon lexicon, in addition to the title words, evokes Hope/ Dream/ Hunger amidst a necessary tangle of electric cables. Talking with Richard would gather a small cannon of neon work: Fiona Banner’s Every Word Unmade (Neon Alphabet) (2007), one example where an artist has made their own neon lettering, and the neon hands of Alec Finlay’s Rock, Paper, Scissors at the Northern Art Prize. Richard told me admiringly of Richard Box’s Field installation (2004), where 1301 florescent tubes were controversially powered by the electrical fields of overhead power lines.
I noted some other words on the floor that were still to be neon-ed:
SEEDY BACK STREET
Neon Lights was an installation waiting not to happen. Propane and Oxygen cylinders, naked flames, large high voltage transformers, sharp glass and mercury, make a strong list of Health and Safety issues. Mobile Neon Factory might fit a genre of temporary art architectures, but summer pavilions rarely have firm lines of black and yellow warning tape beyond which only the artist can cross. Neon Lights stretched from one end of Site gallery to the other, and, as Richard’s difficult, frustrating process of learning to make letters unfolded, there was soon lots of broken glass around too.
I watched Richard at work to get a sense of how this unfamiliar process worked. At one end of this temporary production line, neon strips are heated by a hand torch or rolling burner, then bent into the desired shapes. At the other, air is removed from the phosphor coated white tubes, making vacuums that can be filled with gas.
Argon, Richard observes, makes blue light, and is the most commonly used gas. The red of neon is too vibrant. Finished lights are laid out on the aging bed and connected to traditional coil wound transformers for ‘ageing’. Lights might fail, due to impurities or tiny cracks in the glass. When first connected the lights are dim but they soon settle as the gas reacts and warms with electricity for the first time. In theory, they could maintain this light level for a hundred years.
In Sheffield, such production is an act with resonances to the city’s industrial manufacturing past (Richard tells me about a visit from an engineering student, keen to see a now rare example of such manufacturing processes). If the words visitors provide imply certain neon associations, the in-gallery response of many visitors forgets the words altogether, absorbed more by a school chemistry class fascination with the bunsen burner’s spurting flame.
Selected from an open call, the Site Platform project lets artists use the gallery for up to two weeks to develop new work. Open to the public, it is both studio and exhibition, and the artist is always engaged in a kind of durational performance. Richard chats with visitors, carrying out the neon making process in front of his gallery audience, when there is one. The participatory elements are curtailed by neon’s intensive production process, not to mention flame torch and protective safety goggles.
Several of Richard’s previous explorations of neon as a material have involved performance. Neon requires it, deploying and manipulating its demand to be seen, either with or without human accompaniment. Disappearing Paths involved ladders’ of white neon and the accompanying soundtrack of Arvo Pärt’s Cantus In Memoriam Benjamin Britten (1977). Richard found the music “melancholy and beautiful,” in resonant juxtaposition with neon’s electrical and mechanical qualities.
As the music progresses it descends in scale, and the neon lights of each ladder gradually turn off. Disappearing Paths was performed twice, once at Wakefield Cathedral and again in the outdoor environment of the Yorkshire Sculpture Park, which Richard admits he found more exciting. “The cathedral seemed obvious” he observed. “I prefer sitting on the fence.”
Another piece, Sirens (2010) was a response to Barbara Hepworth’s 1934 sculpture Mother & Child and the context of the newly completed but then still empty Hepworth Wakefield Gallery. Richard had met two men at a cage fighting competition in Cleethorpes, who were members of a mixed martial arts club in Wakefield. They took part in the performance by wearing A boards featuring images of martial arts fighters. They walked around the space, forming tableau around Wheater, who was wearing a neon version of Hepworth’s sculpture and navigated the space by plugging himself into available power sockets. The tableau formed a shifting human-neon response to Hepworth’s stone forms, as well as the stark minimalism of the David Chipperfield designed building. “It’s unknown… senses are heightened. It’s live” says Wheater of this kind of performance.
As neon has to be plugged in (unless it is Box’s Field), the performance ties us to a place and time. As a neon sign blares its message simply into the darkness, this sort of performance orientates around a single gesture and idea unfolding in time, an experiential equivalent to neon’s own directness. Within this time, we move beyond the “neon as sign.” Neon begins to illuminate a different kind of private, shadow space, that in the meanings it produces might not have anything to do with actual light or some metaphorical “illumination.” Neon’s paradoxes begin to be made (in-)visible.
It doesn’t involve neon, but this is also the space of Richard’s Them & Us. In various locations around the UK, glass birds were made in a mobile kiln, then “set free.” A glass seagull for South Shields, a common house sparrow at Ferrybridge Power Station in West Yorkshire, crows in the New Forest and a swallow in Leicester. “It was filled with the breath of my lungs, and still it would not fly!” was Richard’s byline for the project. If the clarity of the gestures survives such dramaturgy, the glass birds, obviously, do not.
Continue reading here.