Artist Romily Alice Walden couldn't find anyone in the UK to teach her the art of neon bending, so she upped sticks and moved to Berlin. There she found a mentor to take her through the practice and, having honed her craft, has been making luminescent works ever since. "I've always been a really hands-on maker," she explains. In a time when our attention spans are limited and the finished outcome is infinitely more appealing than putting in the graft, there's something remarkable about self-taught artists. "If I want to make something, I really try and learn to do it myself. Why spend thousands of pounds learning to make it, when I could use that money to make it myself?"
Walden's neon women, often lit in shades of pink, are a subversion of the signs that plaster late-night strip clubs and Vegas joints. "I was really looking at the way in which the female body is portrayed in our culture. There are so many embodiments of pornography and sexuality." Social media has propelled the female body into another stratosphere, with advertising and exposure to celebrities more pervasive than ever before. But platforms like Instagram have also given women a new kind of agency – we're able to present our bodies in the way we want, rather than as subject to the male gaze. Does Walden think social media has helped or hindered her practice?
"It's really hard. Previously, budding artists were so dependant on someone influential choosing to uplift your work. Now, it's just as hard to get your work seen, but I do think you have a lot more options and agency on social media," she says. "If you aren't necessarily comfortable in the highbrow fine art world, people might be intimidated by galleries, but with Instagram they can enjoy art on their own terms."
While there are countless benefits to a digital art scene, such as democracy and diversity, social media platforms have raised questions about whether we can now produce a truly original piece of art. Walden sounds positive. "I think there's still work to be made. For me, if the answer is no and everything has been made, then what's the point in making anything else? Then we're left with a world where no one ever makes new art," she states. "I think art has always been derivative. Obviously now it's a lot easier to see lots of art very quickly and access these amazing back catalogues of every artist you can think of but I actually think that artists have always learned from and been influenced by other artists. I think that there's a strange thing happening in art being shared so much online – if you make a piece of art in a physical space, is it still art? I can be guilty of that too; if I see there's a show, I look at the social media of that show – which is crazy."
While many forms of art are unfortunately lost in the archives of Tumblr and Instagram – think how oversaturated the platforms are with Rupi Kaur's style of poetry – neon art is one medium you have to see IRL to enjoy fully.
With the glowing art becoming more and more popular, thanks to artists like Tracey Emin, it can now be found everywhere from hair salons and bars to churches (Emin's piece in Liverpool Cathedral feels transcendental in that setting). What's the appeal? "We're so desensitised to LED lights and laptop screens that I think there's something new and exciting about neon. It looks like magic." Humans are mammals, and seeing something so obviously not part of our natural environment always feels otherworldly. It's comforting to know that, despite living among blazing lights and TV screens, we're not immune to neon's enchanting effect.