Last week you could find sygns roaming through the installations and gallery booths of the infamous art fair in Basel, searching for neon artworks and aiming to find out more about the position neon occupies in the contemporary art world today.
Kicking off with a run through the airport not to miss the awfully early 6am flight to Basel, we were thrown right into the hectic art jet-setting routine, which included sitting in the airplane next to a very grumpy man in a yellow suit holding a sign saying "Capitalism is not art", a wonderfully yummy and overpriced Swiss breakfast, and a drive through the magical old town of Basel. Then the search began.
The hunt was delightful and bountiful: neons were to be found at every corner, hidden behind iPhone-armed crowds marvelling at and instagramming them. And as the day went on the specific question to be asked about neon’s position in contemporary art became increasingly clear: has neon managed to acquire the status of art in its own right, or is it still being used as a medium to point towards a displaced source of meaning?
1. Neon artwork as a sign
Su-Mei Tse, White Noise, Galerie Tschudi
Su-Mei Tse’s White Noise, which works in conjunction with the ‘Stille Disco’ neon positioned above it, would be a clear example of the usage of neon according to its traditional employment as an advertising medium: it acts in the same way in which the famous neon signs across the Nevada desert would have pointed to a “shake joint” on the side of the street.
2. A neon sign as an artwork
Tobias Rehberger, 自由 (english: Freedom), Galerie Urs Meile
Interestingly, the next level of the equation would be Tobias Rehberger’s 自由 (english: Freedom), where a neon advertising sign itself was turned into a work of art.
The animated neon acts by opposingly lighting up the Chinese character for "Freedom" (自由) and the English "gone fishing". Fishing lovers, or anybody who knows any, will pick up on the irony of the opposition between the peaceful hobby and the less tranquil leisure activities usually indicated on neon signs, though the two are probably equally freeing.
3. Neon beyond what it represents
Mary Weatherford, David Kordansky Gallery
Combining harmonious colourful forms and light, inspired by the sky, Mary Weatherford's works tempt one to get lost in the ardent atmospheres and pretty ambiances they recollect. But it is specifically her defamiliarizing use of neon that hides the edge behind her work: her works portray frenzied corners of cities such as LA and NYC, yet by maintaining a certain superficiality, in the sense that she does not get into the specifics of form and content - of the buildings and the neons signs - she manages to get to the core of the emotional and subjective energy of these places.
This positions Weatherford very high up on the spectrum of neon’s artistic emancipation, as by merely hinting to neon, whithout actually divorcing it from its urban identity, she manages to evoke feelings and ideals one would expect to be completely outside of neon’s grasp.
4. Mystical neon objects
Bethan Huws, L’Arbre, Galleria Vistamare
The ultimate step in the liberation of neon from its cultural signage association was without doubt represented at Art Basel in the Unlimited Hall, firstly by artist Bethan Huws’ jaw-dropping L’Arbre and its collective installation, Forest and secondly by Francois Morellet’s π Weeping Neonly.
Bethan Huws, Forest, Galerie Tschudi
Bethan Huws’ installation Forest stole our heart. With Duchamp’s work strongly influencing her entire artistic development, Forest is specifically meant as a celebration of the 100 year anniversary of Duchamp’s momentous introduction of the ‘readymade’ into the heart of any thought and/or theory regarding the identity of art.
If Sherrie Levine gilded, and thereby monumentalized, Duchamp’s Pissoire, Huws recreated one among 88 commercially available bottle racks - porte-bouteilles - in neon. Like Levine, Huws plays on the repeatability of the artwork implied within Duchamp’s concept of the ready-made, with Huws bringing the concept a step further by creating a forest out of it. In a similar way in which Duchamp took an every-day object out of its context and into an artistic environment to invite the viewer to analyze it in an alternate perception, Huws recurs to neon in the attempt of arousing the same response.
5. Neon as neon
Francois Morellet, π Weeping Neonly, A Arte Invernizzi
And finally, in a seemingly unsystematic arrangement of classic blue lines of neon, François Morellet achieved the purest degree of neon art that was to be found at Art Basel this year.
Having made neon is artistic medium of choice already in the 60s, Morellet has been working on distilling neon from its cultural associations, and form from content more in general, by using abstract and geometric principles that turn his picture plane into a pre-conception and confine-free dimension. In π Weeping Neonly the neon segments, which are actually organized according to π formulas, are simply meant to refer to themselves.