(Liquid) Fire Walk with Me - a history of Neon

America’s long fascination with illumination, - neon and otherwise - finds genesis within that outstretched, verdigris-hued hand of Ms. Liberty herself. Gazing omniscient down across New York Harbour, and up from on-high over numerous questionable commemorations, Liberty Enlightening the World - her torch grasped aloft forever before the nation - illuminates for all, America’s unassailable independence and freedom. 

 

Yet Neon herself did not originate upon these gilded shores, despite America’s affection for colossal luminescence. Rather, two knowledgeable British chemists, Sir William Ramsay and one Morris W. Travers, discovered Neon gas, named for the Greek νέον, meaning new, in London’s late nineteenth century. Neon alighted in the land of the free and the City Of Angels in 1923, by way of a Parisian, Georges Claude, and a Californian Packard automobile dealership. America’s first ever neon signage in fact read Packard, fusing inextricably together the nation’s fixation with the automobile, with advertising and consumerism, and with Neon herself, termed by the day - liquid fire...   

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Radiating forth across the nation, from coast to gilded coast, adopted with uncurbed enthusiasm by every state from Oregon to Maryland, Neon made her incandescent way at last to Broadway and 7th Avenue – ‘The Crossroads Of The World’, New York’s Times Square. And there she has remained ever since, her seductive neon wares known as ‘spectaculars’ and ‘jumbotrons’ transfixing millions of bedazzled tourists and passersby. Times Square now rivals in density even that all-American desert Mecca of excess and luminescence, victory and spectacular decline, the world’s consummate Sin City and The Entertainment Capital Of The World, Las Vegas.

 

Las Vegas: an expansive metropolis of entrancing neon lights, express marriage ceremonies and rapacious casinos. Las Vegas: a city largely constructed by Chicago and New York’s organised crime syndicates. Las Vegas: the brightest city on earth when viewed from outer space, a luminous Xanadu that Tom Wolf immortalised as “the only city in the world whose skyline is made neither of buildings, like New York, nor of trees, like Wilbraham, Massachusetts, but signs … But such signs! They tower. They revolve, they oscillate, they soar in shapes before which the existing vocabulary of art history is helpless."

 

Long synonymous of course with luck’s wayward hand, Las Vegas’ neon brilliance might also be viewed as emblematic of fated American ascendancy, of triumph and redemption, rewarded daring and greatest downfall, of providence wholly seized. And Las Vegas, blazing fiercely forever on, deep within the Mojave Desert, alongside New York’s Times Square and Los Angeles’ Sunset Boulevard, possesses a symbolic pre-eminence, in America’s collective cultural consciousness.

Icarus arcing inevitably higher towards the sun, gosling daydreamers drawn to the fireside, neon is deeply entwined with the nation’s mythologies, ideologies, and cosmologies.  Her lanterns gathering Kerouac’s mad ones, ‘the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars’ from every highway and laneway, town, city and county in the land.


Proclaiming vice and immortality, aspiration and dream, those neon bathed theatres and diners, that proffered leisure and refreshment, flesh and fortune found across the vast American night, all serve as constellations for those longing wayfarers seeking reward and redemption, fame, and even deification. Seize these, and seize yourself. See one’s name in lights and possess that greatest expression of all-American cultural iconography. For you too shall have Warhol’s fifteen minutes. You too will join the luminous Sunset pantheon. You too, may be President one day.


Sweetest Neon is however, more often than not, the cruellest vixen. And despite all Daedalus’ implorations, courting those favours she so archly proffers is too often, a quixotic endeavour. For Neon’s brilliant incandescence remains forever amnesic; fame and adulation sear themselves brilliantly across heaven and memory and consciousness, before inevitably expiring spectacularly once more. Faded supernovas, broken dreams, ebbing northern stars… courting neon demands caution, should you wish to possess her for more than a solitary luminous evening.


For all that glitters is not gold, after all.

 

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