Neon is an illuminated glass tube, a line: the basic and most versatile means of artistic representation. Why is it then, that neon is more often than not used in contemporary art not for its representational potential, but its ability to convey text?
Joe Banks and Zata Banks, The Act of Creation, 2016
Semiotics /ˌsiːmɪˈɒtɪks,ˌsɛmɪˈɒtɪks/ (noun): the study of signs and symbols and their use or interpretation.
The theory of semiotics is a fascinating, anti-realist study of human communication. At its core, it is the analysis of all the processes involved in sign-making and in the interpretation of these signs, which take place on various levels of cultural activity. It became the heart of modernist literary criticism in the second half of the 20st century through the work of theorists Jacques Derrida and Roland Barthes, when they took up thinking about linguistics. It thereby became a prominent theme in the art of the time.
Now, before we lose ourselves in the philosophy of Structuralism, let us introduce American conceptual artist Joseph Kosuth into the picture.
Joseph Kosuth, Neon, 1965
Kosuth is often considered the artist who managed to most effectively manifest the semiotics of art, in art. His work Neon embodies the structural thought of the time by melting signifier and signified, where signified is the concept or thing that is indicated by the signifier: in this case the signified is the neon light and the signifier the word neon. Fascinatingly, through this double referral, the neon artwork becomes a monument to itself.
So, while conceptual art generally plays on divorcing signified and signifier (often to a logically irreconcilable degree), Kosuth did the exact opposite in completely overlapping them.
Bruce Nauman, Five Marching Men, 1985 and One Hundred Live and Die, 1984
At the time, Dan Flavin was creating light installations by making use of neon’s propriety as a source of fluorescent lighting, while Bruce Nauman was experimenting both with the representational and writing possibilities of neon.
Maurizio Nannucci, Art is not intended to be…, 2003
Today, with the most prominent neon artists being the likes of Tracey Emin, Glenn Ligon and Maurizio Nannucci, it seems that the power of neon text has outdone neon’s artistic potential as a light installation or depiction. Perhaps, even in art, neon has not yet managed to overcome its original purpose as an advertising sign.
What do you think – is your dream neon a text or a drawing? Test it on our online configurator ;).