TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

“For you” by Tracey Emin: Neon Installation in Liverpool Cathedral

From the first distance, it looks like a faintly lurid overspill from the window above, which is full of scattered lights—as if the fragments of rose glass hadn’t quite been able to contain themselves. It hovers over the void below, rather like a flash of Islamic script, perhaps the soft fiery writing of God himself, a muted warning, a tinted fiat. Looking back from the East transept, just glimpsing the pink glint under the Nave bridge, but too far away to make out the words, the bright caption almost looks magisterial, a condensation of the window’s eruption.

But as one gets closer, looking up from the Well, Emin’s neon inscription “I felt you and I knew you loved me” begins to shock us. It interrupts the bursting-into-fragments of the kaleidoscopic explosion of the Benedicite window above, and the dark and austere West porch below. What intervenes, slashed through this space, is rose flushed to the banality of pink. Pink’s own powdery embarrassment can least of all endure the flushing energy of neon glow. Thus energized and electrified, pink is exposed, simpering and a little tawdry.

What are we to suppose? Is it just a blush? Is this God blushing, caught out in sending us a Valentine message? It is not what one feels at first, except tacitly. Rather, one senses the uncanny intrusion of the fairground, the disenchanting trailer-park chain of fairy lights with a trailer-park lyric in simultaneous tow. This is the magical appearance of market modernity within a sacred space that has perpetuated into the present the nineteenth-century gothic revival. What is presented is hypercapitalism’s transcendence of the contrast between the stable and the ephemeral. The pathetically intimate scrawl of western miniscule trinked-out in pink neon is entirely of a piece with the permanent encampment of the out-of-town shopping center, the fringing sugary sprawl of postmodern business parks. Lost, all too safely, in such spaces, what is left for us? Desperate and extreme stances perhaps, pleasure only in the shedding of rich real blood so distressingly absent there.

Or is this a different pink, the pink of the incarnation, translated into redeemed luridity? Is its pale pinkness an echo of the sentiment that only human physical intimacy is left in a loveless universe and the miracle that this can be real? The miracle that a touch, physically like any other touch, can all the same convey the highest spiritual communication? That a touch can be special, that its wandering cursivity can convey a stamp of character not just unmistakable like a script, but imbued with a meaning that exceeds language, even though it is only conveyed therein?

The miracle of a loving touch is all of a piece with the miracle of a love letter—of fiery shapes which burn with more than their geometrically flowing selves, which burn with sense.

And why not in pink? Its pale rose is the color of flesh itself, and the blush is the necessary awkwardness of all true feeling. “I felt you and I knew”: what else can love be but this and what else religion? But is any more left to us than the chances of human love: the arrival (or not) of the Valentine card? Does love still seem in excess of that? Do we know that we are loved? Perhaps not any more. Perhaps now only luridly and commercially. For even personal feelings are now sold to us, decked out in a rose that has crudified into pure pink, the least redolent with transcendence of any shade. What can be done with that? How can the cathedral refuse this last sad circus echo of a real dwelling on earth beneath the heavens? The best that can be done with pink is to grind it into powder and shake it like scented snow all over our newly baptized bodies.

But its fluorescence is too resistant for this. It is indignant beneath the rainbow colors of promise and blessing and above the questioning void; it seems crude and unmoved.

To say whether this installation “works” or not would be beside the point. Its singularity is—fortunately—not the self-celebration or mere illustrativeness of “art.” Rather its iconoclastic intrusion of pure electrified writing genuinely reveals—the absence of the icon, the absence in the contemporary market of any revelation, in the heart of a space dedicated to the revelation of love.

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