The flickering light fantastic

Dave Lloyd

Brian Eno may have lit up the Opera House but neon Sydney is fading fast.

'Once I lived in the sky over Sydney,' wrote Kenneth Slessor, the poet laureate of Kings Cross, whose linguistic tricks regularly turned on the burning filament of the city lights.

As a young man, he was bathed in the incandescent halo of the Cross — a 21–year–old cub reporter with the Sun, who took lodgings 'seven storeys higher than the top of William Street, eating, sleeping, loving, arguing, sausage–frying and head–scratching in a small room of stucco, wallpaper and brick'.

Slessor's was an age of electric wonder. His stars were lit by neon. Skylines gleamed with 'blazing arrows and alphabets of light'. People would walk under 'fluorescent blue as they move[d] from one radiance to another'. He mapped the city by its luminosity.

And at the dawn of the roaring twenties, he lay down each night and looked up to a 'green moonlight streaming from the largest and most illuminated bottle of beer in the world'.

Artificial light and colour wash the big city like a dream. It's a radiance that embodies all the possibilities of the metropolis: its consumer pleasures, late–night vices, commercial persuasions, consumptive energy, desires for glamour and corporate branding, all glow on the night sky in a parataxis of identity. AAMI, SHARP, AGL, PANASONIC.

'We've replaced the sorts of wonder we behold through stargazing with the experience of the nocturnal city,' says Alex Fensham, a visual artist who is completing a PhD at Sydney University on artificial light and contemporary experiences of the sublime. 'Nature's aura is replaced with the power of humankind to affect and change environments. City dwellers no longer see the sort of starry night you can reach your hand up inside.'

Slessor, born in 1901 into the western uplands at Orange, never ceased to be aroused by the burning globes and lustrous imagery of this new technology. In My Kings Cross, first published in The Bulletin in 1963, he wrote of 'skysigns that blossom as brilliantly as ever in the electric gardens overhead'.

His heart was staked to the city's 'unending flux of lights and colours, its gaudiness and reticence, its sunsets and midnights that seem (to me) a good deal more beautiful than the highly advertised stones and sand of Central Australia'.

It's an aesthetic of the electric that endures in Sydney; in its night sky, and in the imagination of its citizens. 'I'm interested in the way light can activate objects,' says Lisa Andrew, a New York–schooled artist, whose latest work explores the visual punch of billboard messages.

Titled The Rainbow is Yours with Volume and exhibited at beta_space in the Powerhouse Museum until August 31, the mixed-media installation projects three video loops of words and images to spruik three places of toponymic colour: Redfern, Blackheath, Silverwater.

'I like the way colour is projected onto landscape,' she says. 'The piece has coloured text moving and reflecting off mirrored surfaces. It mimics the rhythmic sequences of neon advertising, the flickering that catches the mind's eye.'

Brian Eno, the electro-pop music wizard and curator of Sydney's recent Luminous festival, excited public imagination when for three weeks he lit up Jorn Utzon's billowing shells in a technicolour vista. Most people approved, although not Gary Bryant from Gladesville. 'Either the Opera House has intrinsic aesthetic appeal or it has not,' he wrote to the Herald. 'Dressing it up to look like a 1970s psychedelic disco is an affront to the designer, and an incredible waste of money.'

Financial considerations sparked the demise of the much-loved Sharpie's neon golf sign near the arches of Central Station. It was pulled down two years ago, despite being listed by the NSW Heritage Office for its 'high social and cultural significance'. The little man in red trousers and flat cap had chipped the ball into the 19th hole three times a minute, six hours a day since 1964, before falling into disrepair.

'The great age of neon has passed,' laments Charles Pickett, a curator of design and society at the Powerhouse Museum, an institution that houses the AWA sign that once sat atop the eponymous 1930s skyscraper, and a red neon greyhound removed recently from Wentworth Park Raceway. 'The days of William Street being a gallery for neon are long gone. The Coca-Cola sign is all that's left.'

It's Sydney's last great wick of outdoor advertising. The 13-metre high billboard, with 800 lamps, calls all to the late–night, last–chance crossroads of Kings Cross deviance — a strip where Lord Mayor Clover Moore once moved to protect neon signs such as 'Stripperama', 'Love Machine', 'Porkies' and 'Showgirls'. Burning into the night, its vertical bars of red fluorescence flash as a neon curtain, glistening on the bitumen like electric molasses, and washing the street in pools of red–and–white.

But not all despair at the loss of the city's neon. 'In cities like New York, London, Paris and Tokyo, you're lucky to see even the brightest star in the night sky,' says astronomer Nick Lomb from Sydney Observatory. 'Sydney still has some stars.'

Dugald Jellie is a regular columnist for Sydney Ideas Quarterly.