ON-NEON is an exhibition and roundtable of artists, architects, designers, local business and activists exploring ways to reignite Kings Cross’s famous neon lights
28 August – 11 September 2004
Curator: Jo Holder
On-Neon Exhibition: Neil Roberts, Peter Fay, Trevor Fry, Michael Gormly, Francesca Mataraga, Eugenia Raskopolis, Twist Creative (and others).
The Art Deco Society has listed the Kings Cross area as an Area of National Significance. But only a handful of neons remain of the Cross’s ‘Glittering Mile’ — Stripperama, Playbirds International, Love Machine, Porkies, Showgirls and the mighty Coke sign.
Our neon heritage and 1920s awnings can still be saved. Recently, Clover Moore’s new council moved to protect Kings Cross neon precinct and its visual razzamatazz (announcement 30 July 2004.)
This is the moment to introduce new ideas. Artists have long celebrated neon as the colours of the street, from poet Kenneth Slessor’s ‘Darlinghurst Nights’ in 1933 to Baz Luhrmann’s film Strictly Ballroom in 1992. Many locals believe that we need more neon, not just saving the few survivors. Creative thinking is needed not formula.
How often has The Cross inspired national trends? Or gone against the grain? The Darlo Drag has pioneered Australia’s apartment living, delicatessens, coffee shops, espresso machines, village squares and more. Its bottlenecks, trams, trolley buses, road works, building sites, posh restaurants, sleazy dives, strippers, drag artistes and ordinary folk have all shaped Australia’s modernity.
Lit by neon, famous, infamous and forgotten characters have wheeled and dealed in its havens and haunts.
Starting at the Darlinghurst Fire Station and ending at El Alamein The Fountain in Fitzroy Gardens, we can savour some of its neon-lit history.
Roundtable: An Arts Vision in Neon for Kings Cross!
ARCHITECTS: Clive Lucas, Peter McGregor (Llankelly Place and Chinatown lights) FILMMAKER: John Hewitt ARTISTS: Loma Bridge (on Rotorua project), Barbara Campbell (on the work of Neil Roberts), Bronwyn Clarke-Cooley, Peter Fay, Trevor Fry, Ruark Lewis, Eugenia Raskopolis DESIGNERS: Twist Creative, Claude Neon Group POETS & WRITERS: Michael Gormly, Linda Jaivin, Anne Coombes ART HISTORIANS & CURATORS: Sally Couacaud (curator, initiated Sydney Sculpture Walk), Kate Davidson (curator, initiated City Exhibition Space), Gavin Harris, Therese Kenyon (resident, director Manly Art Gallery), Ann Stephen (social history curator Powerhouse Museum), and locals and local business.
Format: five invited speakers each gave a five to seven-minute presentation. Then participants gave a brief response. Ideas were communicated to City Council. About fifty people gathered at The Cross Art Projects, one of Sydney’s contemporary art spaces, on Saturday 28th August to hear artists and advocates speak in a room lit by neon signs and sculptures, watching projected displays which included a history of neon — using archival material supplied by Claude Neon — and studies of public neon art from around the world.
Councillor Phillip Black, a heritage expert and chair of council’s cultural committee, chaired the forum.
The neon art forum and exhibition is part of a wider backlash from the Cross communities to Sydney City Council's strict new ‘standard signage’ draft Development Controls which would effectively ban neon or flashing external signage.
At the urging of the ART DECO SOCIETY and resident groups 2011 and DRAG, Council commissioned a heritage assessment of illuminated signage in the Cross.
The ‘Assessment of Illuminated Signage: Darlinghurst Road Streetscape Works' prepared by Rob Howard and Associates says that 'the present signs continue the "tradition" of illuminated advertising that has characterised the locality since before World War II'.
Trevor Fry, Bad Gay Artist (detail) 1998. Red neon on black perspex. Courtesy the artist.
Deans Restaurant, Kellett Street, Kings Cross, 2004. Photo: Michael Gormly.
Money Lender neon, William Street, Kings Cross, 2004. Photo: Michael Gormly.
Piccolo Bar, Roslyn Street, Kings Cross, 2004. Photo: Michael Gormly.
Kebab Shop neon, Roslyn Street corner Darlinghurst Road, Kings Cross, 2004. Photo: Michael Gormly.
While Clover Moore has acted to protect Kings Cross's more prominent signs (announcement 30 July 2004), it’s a race against the clock. Businesses are alarmed at the tiny passive signage they will be limited to, and many residents abhor the uniform dullness.
The local business associations, the Kings Cross Partnership and Cross Business, which represents shopfronts and smaller businesses, are petitioning Council for a revision of the rules.
Jo Holder, convenor of the crisis forum, said in her talk that the first neon sign in Australia had been in Darlinghurst Road Kings Cross in 1929. Her slide show featured the ‘Glittering Mile’ of William Street and Darlinghurst Road and the making of the famous Coke Sign at the top of William Street.
Artist and architect Peter McGregor, who designed the popular light installation in Llankelly Place, Kings Cross, and the Chinatown lights erected for the Olympics, deplored the halting of innovative art in public domain projects and the city Sculpture Walk.
McGregor said the forced council amalgamation and Frank Sartor's adoption of standard ‘gateway designs’ had stopped innovation.
Michael Gormly, local writer and photographer, argued that turning out the lights would kill the Cross. Gormly said local business wants to reinvigorate and build on what the Cross already is—an entertainment, tourist and red-light Mecca. Business should have incentives to encourage neon design.
Ann Stephen, curator of social history at the Powerhouse Museum, spoke about the museum’s preservation of the Golf House animated neon near Central Railway and the giant AWA sign from the AWA tower and the preservation of neons in Melbourne by the state heritage register.
Commercial neons: bottle and café open signs, c. mid 1990s. Courtesy Peter Sacher.
Peter Fay, Venetian Light, 1992. White neon, glass, water and ammonia.
Julie Rrap, A-R-MOUR, 2000. Represented by Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery
Eugenia Raskopoulos, seeping, 2004. Red neon text on clear acrylic, approx 1080 x 35 cm. Courtesy Arc One Gallery, Melbourne
Julie Rrap, A-R-MOUR, 2000. Represented by Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery
Toni Warburton, Kiosk, 2003-4. 12 mm rose neon sign fan shape on white ground, Perspex cover. edition of 5. Courtesy John von Sturmer Collection
Neil Roberts, Untitled (pearl necklace), 2001. ping pong balls and neon tubing, 36 x 4 x 36 cm. Courtesy Estate of Neil Roberts. Represented by Helen Maxwell Gallery
Installation view, The Cross Art Projects, Roslyn Street, Kings Cross
Michael Gormly, Kings Cross Lights, photographic series, 2004. Courtesy the artist
In conclusion, convenor Jo Holder argued that, as Rod Howard’s report says that illuminated signage is at variance with the proposed city signage DCP, a neon precinct signage strategy must be adopted for Kings Cross. The policy restricts signage associated with sex industry premises, the most vital and eye-catching of the current signs, and places restraints on design. It is the exuberance and lack of restraint in design which contribute to the character of the Cross.
Alternatively, council should embrace the forum’s idea of a special ‘Art and Industry’ visual razzamatazz precinct.
Round table convenors: Loma Bridge, Gavin Harris, Jo Holder
William Street, 1956, before the Coke sign. Photo: Ronald Stewart
Victoria Street, Kings Cross, Sydney, 3 May 1966.
Kings Cross, 1970 at 7.35 pm. Photo by John Fitzpatrick. Courtesy National Archives.
Wolfgang, Sievers (1913-2007), Night view of William Street, Sydney, looking towards King's Cross, 1965. Colour photograph. Courtesy State Library of Victoria.