Interview by Georgia Booth
Photography by Ryan Jellyman
When the “neon demon” bit artist and producer Sam Mitchell-Fin, there was no going back. Here, she speaks about the irreproducible luminosity and element of surprise that comes from working with neon.
First things first, how is neon made?
You start with a hollow tube of glass. Melt that into whatever shape you want using a ribbon burner (like a Bunsen burner but with a long flame). That takes a bit of time, I’m still learning. Then add the gas. There are two different types of gas that you use in neon - argon, which is blue, and neon, which is red. They colour the neon in addition to the phosphor coating on the inside of the glass - once it is activated by the gas you get different colours.
I make neon at a workshop in Milperra with a guy who has been doing it for millions of years. Once you add the gas, [the reaction] starts slowly and you see it come alive. It’s a really beautiful thing.
What interests you about neon, over other forms of light art?
I don’t want to pin myself as a neon artist, but I always come back to it. I’ve worked with LED and all sorts of other lighting applications but there is something about neon that you just can’t compare with. The sorts of colours and the luminosity that you get... I love that there’s still a bespoke, hands-on approach to it. You can’t mechanically manufacture neon. I love that it’s fragile, I love that it’s temperamental. I say this now but when I’m installing a show and I’ve got pieces breaking on me, I’m swearing at it!
Sometimes a medium chooses you, and I was super lucky to be bitten by the neon demon. I started off making films and abstract projections and I would like to go back to that at some stage when I feel like I have pushed neon as far as I can.
Light art is about perception, about where you’re standing in a room or the absence of light in a room around the work. In what ways do you think about perception in your work?
How we receive information from light-based works is something I am really interested in. When I first started working with neon, it wasn’t about the piece itself but how the piece presented itself in the room. As much as I know how the piece will sit on the wall, or on a shelf, it’s more about how the art performs in a space. I get excited to see light backing around a bookshelf or how [the work] throws light onto the floor at different times during the day, or how someone walks in and interacts with the work. I have a childlike curiosity; I love the physical aspect of light. I am excited about the anticipation; I know I’m not going to [physically] feel something when I walk up to the work, but I really want to.
If you’re commissioned to make a work by a gallery, do you need to see the space first, or are you just told where your work will be?
Sometimes [I get to see the space] and other times I get excited by the happy accidents that happen. I enjoy the excitement of not knowing and waiting until I switch it on, and I get to experience it for the first time as well. That’s why you become an artist, the constant experimenting and exploring. I don’t want to know everything, there is still something hungry within me.
Are you working on anything at the moment?
I am actually! I grew up with my grandmother who is a florist, and then I fell into floristry as one of my first jobs out of art school, funnily enough. So I had these diametrically opposed parts of my life for such a long time; being a neon installation artist and having these proclivities to use natural elements. The two don’t really go together. So I’ve been trying to work out a way that I can bring them together. I think I have cracked the code.
I usually have one show a year, around March, as part of Art Month, at Gallery 2010 [in Surry Hills in Sydney]. I have a couple of commissions on the go.
Do you mostly get commissions for home or commercial projects?
I do both. It took a while for people to accept it into their homes because it’s so bright. People love it and are really drawn to it but having that in the domestic space has been a bit of a challenge. I’ve scaled my work down; I was working really big for a while and that’s kind of intimidating. I’ve got some really great pieces in people’s homes at the moment, which is always such a huge privilege.
Do you have any favourite pieces that you have done for a shop or a home?
It’s like choosing between your children, but I have this piece, which I made way back in 2012, which is still one of my favourites. It’s called The Size of an Argument and was one of the first assemblage pieces I did. It’s a big heart and on the inside I took recycled neon signs and smooshed them on top of one another. It was the first piece I sold into someone’s home. Because a lot of the works I make are autobiographical, I title them with regards to something happening in my life at the time. I deviate between my favourites depending on a favourite memory.
Are you restricted in the colours that you can choose?
There’s a pretty good colour spectrum. There are maybe three or four blues, a couple of greens, a yellow ... but it’s not infinite. You can slightly manipulate the colours. But I’ve never felt restricted. I’ve always been able to find something that will work with what I am working on.
Sometimes restriction is helpful.
Are there any new technologies that could transform your work?
It’s pretty set in stone. In saying that, there is new LED technology called Flex Neon, which has been on the market for four to five years. It won’t compete with glass neon, because there is something about it that you can’t compete with. But it’s flexible, it uses LED instead of gas, and it can be mechanically produced so you can produce it en masse. But it will still be awhile before artists will embrace it. I’ve used it a couple of times, but it doesn’t have that je ne sais quoi that neon does.
In terms of glass neon, I don’t think it has ever changed or will ever change and I kind of don’t want it to. The only problem is that there is no school in Australia to study it. There is one in the UK, one in Russia and one in Germany, I think. But all of the neon manufacturers are starting to die off. They are either retiring or embracing new technologies. It’s a shame. It has had a bit of a resurgence in the last few years. You just have to hope that it will never completely die off.
Do you like glow sticks or do you hate them because they are a shitty imitation of neon?
(Laughing) I think glow sticks are awesome and they totally have a time and a place. I probably wouldn’t use them in an artwork, but I think they are cool!