Filthy Phrases and Bright Bulbs
What’s so great about filthy phrases and bright bulbs? Neon is a relatively new phenomenon in the art world, but not without lack of recognition. I remember my first neon sighting – a bright red light by Tim Noble (1966- ) and Sue Webster (1967- ) (often called Noble & Webster). It illuminated the words ‘Fucking Beautiful.’ My parents acquired the art when I was twelve.
Sometimes I brought my friends home from school for ‘play-dates,’ asked my father to push the button which turned the neon on, then read the sign out to my audience. ‘Fucking Beautiful,’ I said. I turned to my friend. ‘My parents won’t let me say the word ‘Fucking’ unless it’s in this context.’ Then I looked back at my father. ‘That one doesn’t count: it was an explanation, rather than using the word. Just like you tell me: “No bad words, only bad contexts.” My father would have been more amused, had he not been concerned that the other parents at school might learn about our after-school lessons. I smirked and moved on.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve found neon art to be quite arbitrary, in that the art world considers some to be great, and others average. They’re often just brightly lit words or phrases: nothing special. ‘Fucking Beautiful’ stuck with me, partly because at the age of twelve, even the act of looking at the sign felt like I might be breaking the rules. But that ‘rule breaking’ seems almost common in neon art, in that artists often choose words or phrases that tend to be particularly crude or vulgar.
Take Tracey Emin (1963- ), for instance. Some of her neon signs are sweet: ‘Just Love Me,’ ‘I Loved You More Than I can Love,’ ‘Meet Me in Heaven / I Will Wait For You.’ Some of her neon signs are inappropriate, to say the least: ‘Her Soft Lips Touched Mine and Everything Became Hard,’ ‘People Like You Want to Fuck People Like Me,’ ‘Good Smile, Great Come.’ If you had asked me whether I believed ‘Good Smile, Great Come,’ would be so successful, I most likely would have said no. But it works, perhaps because it’s true (we can leave this up for debate), and perhaps because the shock factor makes viewers want to believe it’s true. It makes people stop. It makes people think. It stimulates memories – good and great ones – in an effort to connect with the viewer. This sense of connection to the real world, both in a person’s body and in his/her mind, makes the artwork valuable.
My favorite Tracey Emin neon is slightly less vulgar. The work still includes a bad word, but perhaps with less sexual connotations. I remember the first time I saw the piece, at Frieze Art Fair in Regent’s Park in London back in 2019. I walked from aisle to aisle, observing the different paintings, statues, collages, and exhibitions at the hundreds of galleries on show. A crowd formed in front of one specific work at Xavier Hufkens Gallery, with visitors pointing and taking pictures before slowly walking away, then looking back again, then moving away. The bright red light colored the remainder of the space in the gallery. I walked towards the crowd, squinting because of my mediocre eyesight, until I eventually came close enough to read the phrase, ‘I Thought About Fucking the Inside of Your Mind.’. It’s a peculiar sentence to read: what could it possibly mean to fuck the inside of someone’s mind? But to me, it makes sense: who wouldn’t want to reach inside of other people’s minds? Aren’t you curious about what other people are thinking, more specifically, what they’re thinking about you? Rather than sexual, the work is hedonistic, and sensual. It suggests a desire to become closer to someone, to better understand the person, or the way they think.
Perhaps neon signs don’t take as much ‘effort’ as a painting, so to speak. In a way each takes more, in that they require less traditional artistic skill and use less colors. The words on each sign dominate the viewer’s mind through (often obscene) language. But without that ability to dominate, what would be the point? Obscenity is sometimes necessary, and always effective.