Art in Public Places: Pretty Vacancy

XCurated, Art in Public Places, Pretty Vacancy, Michael Davidge, Swamp Ward Window, public art, Kingston, OntarioWe were excited to see the Swamp Ward Window play a role in the Art in Public Spaces series, as it was one of the first public art venues we had stumbled across in the past (Inside, Settle). Passers-by might not immediately notice the pieces on display at the Swamp Ward Window, while artist Michael Davidge’s neon sign titled Pretty Vacancy is similarly camouflaged as an unassuming fixture.  It resembles the sort of decoration that was plucked out of a dorm room or antique auction, while the lack of a neon glow during the day time does not immediately draw the eye.  When the sun sets, Davidge’s piece comes to life with a brilliant yet modest luminous glare.  Curious onlookers will find the following statement in front of the Swamp Ward Window:

Kingston-based artist Michael Davidge’s Pretty Vacancy, directly references two things: the 1977 song ‘Pretty Vacant’ by seminal punk band, the Sex Pistols, and the ubiquitous neon (NO)VACANCY signs of roadside motels. While the former inflicts raucous snarls about political unease, recessionary poverty, and youthful unrest, the latter symbolizes a safe place for physical relief from the stress of the highway, and a temporary vacation from the realities of home and working life. Both, however, contain an underlying current of anxiety. The kind of cultural anxiety that has become apparent with the past few decades worth of rapid growth in spectacular capitalism – some might say at the expense of spiritual or intellectual reflection. And the kind of personal anxiety that is present when facing the uncanny strangeness of a blank motel room – like a mixture of the Bates Motel from Hitchcock’s Psycho (1960) and the sterile luxury of a Hilton. Residing somewhere between these two currents, lies Davidge’s desire to captivate and confuse us with his puzzling – and pulsing – textual game.

Davidge’s use of neon is certainly not without precedent. In fact, it has proven to be an attractive and compelling medium for a substantially large number of contemporary artists (including Nathan Nauman and Ron Terada among many others). Perhaps it is that neon is a surprisingly complicated and dialectical substance, which makes it so artistically seductive. Indeed it can appear both retro and futuristic, it can be tongue-in-cheek but it can serve as a serious mode of communication, it is impossible to ignore and yet it is also an invisible part of our everyday urban-scape. When placed in the context of this otherwise quiet, residential neighbourhood in Kingston’s Swamp Ward, is neon an obnoxious imposition or an amusing curiosity?

Be sure to visit the Swamp Ward Window and see Davidge’s Pretty Vacancy for yourself. In case you missed it, we’ve also explored other works from the APP project including: Milie Chen and Warren Quigley’s Greenroom, as well as Shayne Dark’s Free Form in Blue. Stay tuned for a few more works from APP in the coming weeks.

Harvey Kirkpatrick

Harvey Kirkpatrick is Kingstonist's Co-Founder. His features curiously explore urban planning, what if scenarios, the local food scene and notable Kingstonians. Loves playing tourist and listening to rap music. Learn more about Harvey...

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