I love neon, so I was interested in Peter Conrad’s recent piece in the Observer, especially this–
Across the clinical white walls of the gallery, Emin scribbled a maudlin love note in pink neon tubes that looked like extracts from her tangled intestines: “Oh Christ I just wanted You/to Fuck me/And Then/I Became Greedy, I wanted/You to Love me”. … Neon is a medium for public pronouncements; Emin the exhibitionist made it broadcast a private confession. Jenny Holzer has done something braver and more altruistic, employing neon to denounce the commercial orgy of Times Square: her installation there during the 1980s re-educated the signs, curing them of their consumerism. “PROTECT ME,” said a devout revolutionary prayer that blazed on the side of a skyscraper, “FROM WHAT I WANT.”
The deep grammar of those two statements is so spookily, so almost unbearably similar that I want to understand why. Both women are brave. Both women have extracted ironies from neon. (Emin by playing private against public purpose, Holzer by playing advertising against itself.) Both women have come to an understanding about desire. The fact that the private & political grammars are so entangled must be a clue. & while Emin seems to be a political lost cause, nevertheless she understands something important, which is that though the British find loathsome every aspect of the physical & emotional life they can’t control or belittle (or control by belittling), what they loathe most is the display of vulnerability. That’s such a taboo insight we can’t even admit when someone’s had it.