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Richard William Wheater

Issue 65 Feb / Mar 2012

Reviving a love for neon through art, education and performance.

Since St Valentine’s day 2011, red neon has burnt bright above a small workshop in the industrial backstreets of Wakefield in the north of England. Each month, passengers gazing out of their train windows have been treated to new proclamation of love: snippets of famous love songs written out in glowing two-foot high capitals.

The piece, 12 months of Neon Love, is a collaboration by artists Richard William Wheater and Victoria Lucas.
“We wanted to affect people who don’t go to galleries,” says Wheater. “You’ve got to be careful with public art; people often get angry with it, but I think this piece really connected with the majority of the general public. We get emails all the time from people saying it’s brightened up their journey and it’s great; art shouldn’t just be in galleries, it shouldn’t just be for a high brow informed middle class.”

On February 14th this year, the project comes to an end as the twelfth and final message – ‘No more I love yous...’ – is turned off. It’s passing will leave many fans broken hearted, but this success did not come without its challenges.  The local authority initially refused to grant planning permission, threatening to end the project just three months in to its run. This all changed when a huge swell of public support - including messages from the likes of former Pulp front man and culture-champion Jarvis Cocker – helped ensure the council saw sense.
This initial reticence is telling of the challenges that come with working in a medium with such a loaded cultural identity.

“Neon is just a slang term to describe what is really just cold cathode lighting; interior designers know this, architects know this, but perhaps local authorities don’t,” says Wheater.  “So when they get a planning application saying someone wants to use neon - and they’ve bravely used that ‘n ‘word, neon, to describe what they want - then it often gets turned down because of these associations that have become so embedded in our culture: discos, strip joints, take-aways; the seedier side of urban life.”

For Wheater, neon is so much more.
“In the words of Tracy Emin ‘Neon makes you feel good’ and it kind-of does – everybody, all demographics, know what neon light looks like and they tend to stare at it more than once - it just has this real allure.”

Wheater’s first introduction to neon came during an exchange programme that saw him swop Edinburgh College of Art for a semester at Alfred University in New York. “I loved the idea of being able to create your own light and the more I learnt about it, the more appealing it became: the fact it was 100 per cent recyclable, the fact it was energy efficient... And it’s so simple – you’re just exciting this inert noble gas that’s in the air we breath. There’s something romantic about that.”
In 2010 Wheater founded the Neon Workshop working alongside Julia Bickerstaff, whose 26 years of commercial experience and technical knowledge he is quick to credit. The Workshop was set up with the aim of serving the creative community, both by allowing artists to come and learn about the medium and by providing facilities and expertise to help them realise their own neon works.

For Wheater, the Neon Workshop feeds and supports his own work as an artist – quite literally in the case of 12 Months..., which is installed on the workshop roof. Whilst he isn’t bound exclusively to light art, neon remains central to his work, with the light source often incorporated into one-off performance pieces.

“A lot of people would say that neon is a real marriage between science and art and I certainly come at it from the arts background,” he explains.

For 2009’s Disappearing Paths, Wheater took a series of stepladders and shrouded them in neon. Set to Avo Pärt classical piece Cantus in Memoriam Benjamin Britten, the illuminated steps were then switched off one by one until the last note sounded and the audience were left in total darkness.

“It’s a really odd piece,” says Wheater of the music that both inspired and accompanied the work. “It gets louder, but it’s also scaling down all the time as though it’s coming to an end right from the very beginning.” Disappearing Paths translates this imagery into physical form, starting in a blaze of lights and then building the dark by a process of simplification and subtraction. “I wanted people not to fear the darkness, but to embrace it and just feel humbled by it,” he explains.
Most recently, Wheater was among ten artists and designers selected for the Lux Craft event during last year’s London Design Festival. His piece, I’m Electric, You’re Electric, took a set of industry standard insulator discs of the kind used at electricity substations and illuminated each one with a slightly different tone of neon from warm white through to electric blue. The piece was spotted by the manager of Damian Hirst’s Other Criteria gallery leading to a commission for a second, linear version of the piece.

For Wheater, it has provided an invaluable push, moving him further into the art establishment and providing further proof of neon’s strangely seductive power.


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