Seven Billion Two Hundred and One Million Nine Hundred and Sixty-Four Thousand and Two Hundred and Thirty-Eight is the exact number of people who will be alive on Planet Earth at the precise moment Young British Artist Gavin Turk’s solo show opens at The Bowes Museum on January 25, 2014. His large scale neon light work will broadcast this number on The Bowes’s iconic chateau-style façade: a traversable portal through our fixed point of existence, to our future, the now, or our past.
The Bowes Museum couldn’t be a more fitting setting for Turk’s own collection of neon works he’s made throughout his career: its permanent display of decorative and fine arts from the Bronze Age to the 20th century records not only cultural history, but its understanding through technological advancement. That The Bowes Collection was the inspiration and passion of the 19th century Parisian actress Joséphine Coffin-Chevallier and her husband John Bowes is worthy to note as well: the theatricality of art history, its revolving myths and narratives, sets the stage for Turk’s ongoing imposteur performance.
Situated in The Bowes Museum’s main gallery, this exhibition brings together for the first time all of Turk’s neon works – signature pieces made between 1995 and 2013 that see the evolution of Turk’s practice, quite literally, up in lights; their effervescent glow the epiphany aura of consumer fetish, celebrity and glamour. Quintessentially a modernist medium – now rendered obsolete by digital LED – neon is the vaporous stuff of retro-futuristic glory, of Hollywood optimism and capitalist spectacle, and of history’s malleability and forgetfulness: neon light’s inventor, French chemist Georges Claude, envisioned their use for fascist propaganda.
Original meaning co-opted, transformed by another, is the basis of Turk’s own artistic lexicon. Set within a darkened chamber, his luminous symbols beacon with occultish effect: an egg, a banana, a lobster – the spirit-presence of Magritte, Warhol, Duchamp, art’s magical essence distilled as channelled gas, hyper-efficiently packaged as Turk’s own-brand logos. Visually reduced to minimal typographies, they offer communication in its barest form: a seeing eye, a flickering flame, primordial hieroglyphs, with their ancient mysteries and secrets, evolved to modern day usage. Each wall adorned with one of Turk’s trademark doors accentuates this infinite dimensionality of authorship and perception: the ownership of images, their genuine expression and shifting interpretation, is experienced only as quasi-spiritual hypnotic effulgence.
The property of mass media conscious and art history’s legacy, for Turk, becomes a collective commons material to be appropriated for his own legend and artist-persona. Two pieces in this exhibition hold special significance, puncturing Turk’s public image with intimate disclosure. A red star, made in conjunction with his Che Gavara series, is a replica of the actual signage on the façade of Turk’s London studio, the point of origin for his entire artistic output, the bustling workshop producing his celebrity. This is juxtaposed with an eight pointed Maltese cross – a symbol dating back to the First Crusade and a subject of intrigue for the artist Yves Klein. Turk wore this cross when he recently got married, in a ceremony that was a partial re-enactment of Klein’s own wedding. The cross’ points represent the eight lands of origin, the origin of languages, and the values of truth, sincerity and faith – the shared provenance of humanity, each of the 7,201,964,238 of us!
All images © Andy Keate, courtesy of Gavin Turk