Don’t look now, but all the neon lights are fading. We used to see their flashing signs everywhere, but now, apart from the odd seedy motel, they have almost vanished. Even places like Las Vegas and Hong Kong will gradually replace them with digital signage, as something that once spelt out the future slides slowly into the past.
Mobile M+: NEONSIGNS.HK is an online exhibition by M+, Hong Kong’s museum for visual culture, that aims to celebrate this neglected art form and show how important it has been to the visual culture of Hong Kong. It documents the history of neon lights, featuring essays on their cultural significance and a gallery of over 4,000 photos submitted by the public. The photos were taken by Hong Kong residents between March 21 and June 30 of this year to create a unique neon map of the region.
A neon sign starts and ends with a line—or more specifically, a gas-filled tube of glass, heated and bent by a skilled craftsman, and set aglow by an electrical charge. Once illuminated, the line transforms: It mimics and abstracts, glows and flickers, and implores and distracts. Its symbols, signs and texts articulate a live-wired language of the modern city.
Looking at the exhibition photos, which show these luminous signs blurring into streams of light and spelling out words in intricate patterns, it’s easy to appreciate their beauty. They form a kind of hieroglyphics of Hong Kong, communicating the region’s spirit in glowing colours.
Alongside the photo gallery, you can also explore the Neon Timeline which spans the invention of the form to its contemporary status. It includes the first commercial use of a neon sign in 1904 by a New Jersey hardware store that was way ahead of its time and the current dimming of the lights in Hong Kong as new regulations come into force and other forms of technology compete.
Chen is well aware of the irony of creating a gallery of neon lights in a medium that is one of the main reasons for their demise.
While neon signs offered a seductive visual vocabulary for the 20th century, in the 21st, they and the skills that produced them are being supplanted by LED and other, newer technologies. It might seem ironic that this project, dedicated to neon signs, resides on one of the mediums that’s replacing them: a digital screen. However, as a craft born of industry, there has always been something inherently anachronistic about neon, and perhaps it’s fitting that it’s as an anachronism that neon signs might live on.
While the neon lights in Hong Kong and around the world will eventually dim into permanent darkness, this online exhibition will be a reminder of how they shaped our cities for over a century.