10 Electrifying Neon Artworks

The twentieth century saw artists making artworks out of light itself

By Google Arts & Culture

The Light Inside (1999) by James TurrellThe Museum of Fine Arts, Houston

For centuries, artists have tried to capture light in paint, in the twentieth century artists began to turn to light itself as a medium…

At the forefront of this new movement was James Turrell, who used architecture and combinations of artificial and natural light to produce awe-inspiring spaces. The Light Inside was commissioned by the Museum of Fine Arts Houston as an all-encompassing artistic environment.

Turrell's strangely-lit installations play with perception. It's not clear where exactly the floors and walls begin and end. Let your eyes adjust, and as you move tentatively through the space, you'll see the subtle shift of colours and shadows.

Cloud for Kochi (2012-12-12/2013-03-17) by Alfredo JaarKochi-Muziris Biennale

The Chilean artist Alfredo Jaar created this installation, Cloud for Kochi, in Aspinwall House, India. The neon text, taken from the ancient poet Kālidāsa's Cloud Messenger, is written in reverse, but a pool of water reflects the light, allowing it to be read.

No Borders Exist in Nature (2014) by Jae Eun ChoiDurham University

No Borders Exist in Nature was made by Jae Eun Choi for the Real-DMZ art project in Woljeong-ri Station, an abandoned railway station, and popular tourist attraction, located in the Demilitarized Zone that borders North and South Korea.

This simple statement is charged by its context. Its free-flowing script and power cables are suggestive of the free movement that it advocates.

Platform for discussion (1971/1999) by Jerzy FedorowiczUjazdowski Castle Centre for Contemporary Art

Polish artist Jerzy Fedorowicz developed this Platform for Discussion in 1971. The grid of neon lights hangs at head height, the rings designate where people can stand. The idea being that it facilitates discussions without favouring any particular person.

The irony is that this forces people into uncomfortable positions, and that the bright, buzzing neon lights are distractions from conversation. The artist, a specialist in art therapy, demonstrates how attempts to force creative discussion are often doomed the fail.

Shortcuts (2005/2005) by Ivan NavarroBorusan Contemporary

Like Turrell's work, Iván Navarro's Shortcuts plays with space and perception. These mindbending installations appear to be long corridors, but they're actually optical illusions - neon tubes combined with one-way mirrors that reflect almost into infinity.

The primary colours, and the notion of a shortcut, connects this artworks to styles and concepts used in video games. But the deep, dark abyss at the centre of each of the portals suggests that where they lead is nowhere nice.

Fonti di energia, soffitto al neon per “Italia 61”, a Torino (1961/2017) by Lucio FontanaPirelli HangarBicocca

Lucio Fontana is better known for his cut canvases, but as the founder of 'spatialism', he sought to create art that drew together colour, sound, light, and space. This luminous installation, first made for Expo 61, was recreated here at the Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan in 2017.

Fontana created many light installations like this, naming them ambienti spaziali, or 'spatial environments'. They are Fontana’s most experimental yet least-known works, as they were almost always destroyed once the exhibition was over.

Two Lovers by Zoulikha BouabdellahBarjeel Art Foundation

Algerian-born artist Zoulikha Bouabdellah explores identity and otherness. This work, Two Lovers, takes the Arabic word for lover and pairs it with its mirrored self. The rhythmic flashing movement of the two lovers resembles a passionate sexual embrace.

This artwork is Bouabdella's way of showing that, far from Western stereotypes, Arabic is not a repressive language, and Arabic women are capable of openly expressing themselves and their desires.

Naos (2001 - 2001) by Diego EspositoCAMUSAC Cassino Museum of Contemporary Art

In classical Greek architecture, the 'naos' was the holiest space in the temple, only a select few were allowed access. Diego Esposito's Naos recreates the sense of awe with a gridded cube containing another cube. Between these, an intense golden light radiates outwards.

Naos is a space of mystery. Its golden light is enticing, and tempts you to gaze inside, while its solid form and dazzling brightness demands reverent respect. It feels as if the sun itself is contained within this imposing cube.

Counter Void (2003) by Tatsuo MiyajimaMeiji Jingu Forest - Festival of Art

Tatsuo Miyajima created this work, Counter Void, in 2003. The work consists of six enormous digital counters, each of which loop from 9 to 1 at a different speed. By day, the numbers are illuminated against a black background, by night, this reverses.

Miyajima links the white and black screens to a cycle of life and death. As the numbers count down, they present a 6 digit number. This number may, at any point, have some kind of meaning to a passerby. But - like life - none of this is intentional, it's simply pure chance.

Life, Death, Love, Hate, Pleasure, Pain (1983) by Bruce Naumanla Biennale di Venezia - Biennale Arte 2015

Life, Death, Love, Hate, Pleasure, Pain was created by Bruce Nauman in 1983, when neon was more closely associated with commercial buildings. In this work, the neon lights cycle round and round, advertising emotions to the viewer like casinos and adult shows.

The circle suggests that somehow these feelings are eternal and inextricably linked together. In fact, you'd find few artists who disagree, but rather than allude to this idea through other media, Nauman's neon tubes make it as clear as day.

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