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216 × 138 × 21 mm
224 pages
35 illustrations, 23 in colour
01 Feb 2013
  • £25.00

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Flickering Light A History of Neon Christoph Ribbat

Neon signs exemplify the ambivalence of modernity. For some observers, these glowing tubes stand for crass commercialism and seedy back alleys, while for others they light the way to the very heart of popular culture. Energized by this tension, Flickering Light traces neon’s technological, social and cultural history, from its beginnings in a late nineteenth-century London laboratory through its ubiquitous status in the world’s urban landscapes to its blinking presence in our contemporary art spaces.

Christoph Ribbat shows how colourful advertisements brought elegance to Western metropolises between the wars, and how a humble gas transformed a sleepy desert town into the Las Vegas we know today. Flickering Light follows writers such as Vladimir Nabokov and Nelson Algren and artists including Tracey Emin and László Moholy-Nagy through illuminated streets; it explores Theodor Adorno’s aversion to neon and the neon songs performed by Peggy Lee, Kraftwerk and others. Literature, music and film turned a pulsating advertising device into a powerful metaphor of modernity.

And yet, only a few decades after their invention, neon signs were considered dated and began to embody the melancholy of run-down neighbourhoods and neglected businesses. Flickering Light thus tells the engrossing story of how a glowing tube of gas illuminated the world – and faded almost as quickly as it arrived.

‘Ribbat is particularly good at situating the novelty of neon within its larger historical context, elucidating how its development resonated with and reflected the shaping forces of the 20th century.’ — Los Angeles Review of Books

Flickering Light, Christoph Ribbats intriguing history of neon, explores neons use in art, its value in advertising, and its cultural legacy.’ — Slate

‘[a] wide-ranging history of neon both the gas and the signage taking in everything from Nelson Algrens pulpy novels of urban alienation, to East German adverts, to an obscure album track by The Verve . . . Ribbat deserves credit for giving this intriguing and neglected subject the attention it has been crying out for.’ — World of Interiors

‘Ribbats brilliant Flickering Light . . . Neatly spanning a century, Flickering Light is a concise survey of neons rise, fall and reinvention. In Ribbats account, its story follows a glitz-to-gutter narrative, akin to that of a bright young Hollywood star who shines, in a literal sense, too brightly: one day toast of the town, the next drunk and out of work . . . if Flickering Light traverses a wealth of cultural references, the author offers the discerning eye of an accomplished cultural commentator with often excellent analysis, rather than a staid literary review.’ — V&A Magazine

‘Ribbats book is a concise and revealing history of this once maligned, now nostalgically fashionable lighting beloved of retro connoisseurs, and also considers neons place in modern art and popular music. Neon will never return to prominence, but it will continue to function as a romantic signifier of a rapidly disappearing form of urbanity.’ — Reel Ink

Flickering Light describes not only the commercial development of neon as advertising and signage but more interestingly weaves around this its cultural influences as metaphor and inspiration for the writers, artists and musicians, who throughout the twentieth and early-twenty-first centuries, have made reference to it in their work.’ — ArtReview

‘this survey of century-old material is pleasingly unconcerned with reclassifying the greatest neon commercial signage as art, as if that were to somehow ennoble it. Presented against the work of neon artists such as Burce Nauman, Lili Lakich and Dan Flavin, we see how the same material can be a means to different and equally satisfying ends.’ — The Art Newspaper

‘Christoph Ribbat reminds readers that neon was also a boon to small businesses, added colour to small towns, and developed into a craft . . . This book will appeal to anyone with a flicker of interest in neon.’ — The Historian

‘Whatever the diversity of views and the ups and downs of neon in Western cultural history, Ribbat documents how the invention stemming from the days of Ramsay and Claude has had a remarkable effect on a wide range of cultural expressions.’ — Ambix

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Christoph Ribbat is Professor of American Studies at the University of Paderborn, Germany.

1. Reading Neon
2. Roses are Blooming in Manhattan
3. Neon Wilderness
4. Las Vegas: City of Lights
5. Green Fingers
6. Art from Tubes
7. Listening to Neon

Photo Acknowledgements