In 2002, the Ian Potter Museum of Art staged a Peter Kennedy retrospective which included a reconstruction of one of his early neon sculptures. Kennedy’s involvement with neon went back to his youth when he had a job in a neon light workshop. Architect John Wardle, who has frequently collaborated with artists, visited the exhibition and approached the artist with the suggestion that he produce a work for the firm’s offices on the tenth floor of the Total House building, 180 Russell Street, Melbourne.
Neon light is a relatively new medium, pioneered by Georges Claude in the early twentieth century. After its first public display in Paris in 1910, neon was adopted for commercial signage uses around the globe. Neon’s use as an art medium is even more recent. I don’t know of a formal genealogy but I recall seeing a 1930s sculpture by a Czech artist incorporating neon [Zdeněk Pešánek, Spa fountain, 1937]. The Italian Lucio Fontana made neon light installations in the 1940s and, by the 1960s, artists such as Bruce Nauman were consistently using the medium.
Neon is not a particularly popular medium among artists because it presents a number of practical and conceptual challenges. It is a relatively complex technology which, in spite of its seductive colour, brings with it certain distancing effects. Neon lights are fabricated by technicians, an act of delegation that might worry the more romantic artist. Neon has an air of automation and of the inorganic; it’s a brittle apparatus as opposed to the more organic, tactile media of the traditional plastic arts. And it’s difficult to manage the categorical position of neon, which readily slips into the realms of commercial signage and Pop art, whatever the intentions of the artist. These challenges—the technological and commercial—are mapped in paintings of neon lights made by American superrealists such as Robert Cottingham in the 1970s: sterile, flat images of cold mechanisms looming over abandoned streets.
But, to me, categorical confusion is part of neon’s interest. Unlike conventional art media, neon is digital; it turns on and off, rather than having a constant, analogue presence. It is crafted and fabricated in distinct stages by a succession of specialists; aspects of its installation even require licensed practitioners such as electricians. This may not be such an issue for architects but it offends against the lingering mythology of the artist as autonomous genius.
Perceptually, neon is a light emitting medium, unlike such light reflecting media as paint and metal. It radiates actively rather than passively submitting to the viewer’s gaze. Semantically, it frequently fuses elements of signification. It combines text, light, colour, form, space and time. While I’m not acolyte of Marshall McLuhan, this is one of those cases where medium is the message. Because of its association with instrumental communication—the blunt pragmatics of advertising and signage—neon hovers perilously close to the borders of art and non-art. (At least for those who still care for such distinctions.)
One powerful, hybrid signification is neon’s urban resonance, its material and cultural association with downtown and, paradoxically, the rhetorics of ‘film noir’. This is not simply a case of saying that neon art is an art experience outside of the gallery. More than that, it’s an art experience whose meanings are readily shaped by discourses other than art; urbanism, cinema, pulp fiction and psychogeography. The poetics of neon are those Hollywood’s mean streets, or of our nostalgia for a colourful, edgy city that never really was.
Peter Kennedy exploits the hybrid status of neon in a series of reversals and warpings. His neon sign is not instrumental but allusive. It reads ‘And so we say to the as yet unborn, watch out for life and …’ It has a voice—a text by Kurt Vonnegut phrased in the imperative, declarative and transitive1—but it doesn’t spruik a product. It is physically displaced. It is neither at the peak of the building nor at street level. It is positioned on the skin of the building than its base or capital. Located in the windows of the building it hovers in a liminal position. It seems to be neither in nor on the building. Instead it is located at the point of a building’s transparency, where we look at and through the building simultaneously.
When illuminated, Kennedy’s neon traverses space, reaching out across the city towards the viewer. Crossing material space, it reaches into consciousness. Its message hints at a reflection on mortality. There’s an echo of Arthur Stace’s message—‘Eternity’—chalked repeatedly on Sydney’s streets. But I think it’s more a reflection on the passage of an idea; the transmission of a concept in built space, social space, technological space. An electrical current passes through a tube of gas. Lights traverses the city’s streets. The eye traverses the building’s façade as the text is read. Advertising an experience not yet on offer, Kennedy’s neon light declares a connection between the current and future generations; it traverse time, demanding a link between our experience and that of the future.
Original publication: ‘Peter Kennedy: And so …’, Architectural Review Australia, Summer 2003, pp 20, 22–23.
- The opening line of Vonnegut’s 1982 novel Deadeye Dick reads, ‘To the as-yet-unborn, to all innocent wisps of undifferentiated nothingness: Watch out for life’. ↩