Adrian Lee and the signs of our times

We spoke to artist Adrian Lee about the systems and the signage that inspires his practice, and how this manifests in his latest infinite multiple edition print, '(Fire signage compliant) Relativity by MC Escher + Warden'.

December 5, 2018

Infinite Multiple: Standard health and safety warning signs often appear in your work - what is it about these everyday objects that appeals to you?

Adrian Lee: I am interested in communication (and persuasion) in all its forms – from government health warnings, Health & Safety signage, ‘bureaucratic small print’, hand-written signs, brand mascots and shop displays. The standardised, stripped-back images used in Health and Safety signage are designed to communicate something quickly, and with authority. However, because of their ubiquity they are generally overlooked – unless there is a fire of course.

IM: Do you see a beauty in the signs? Or is their pervasiveness more about drawing attention to their place in our lives? You talk about ‘Kafkaesque bureaucracy’, should we be worried?

AL: In my work I explore the visual and verbal material that surrounds us by reworking and re-examining the often-overlooked trappings of our culture. I attempt to isolate and pick apart these items in order to probe how they, and therefore we, function. I am also quietly entertained by the problems I know these fire signage pieces pose when it comes to their installation – legitimate signage versus art work, and how that clumsy cliché of a fire extinguisher being mistaken for a work of art is used too. Everyone loves a well-worn trope – I am happy to say that I have had some work thrown away by a cleaner: some Bunny Mild Cigarette cartons that were in an exhibition in a cinema foyer in Rotterdam a few years ago.

IM: What is your favourite commonplace sign or symbol?

AL: I love signs that have simple messages that accidentally feel like new-age metaphors. The image you see pictured here of the etched aluminium sign bearing the instruction to ‘keep on pressing til the water flows’ from a Sri Lankan train is a lovely example. I also have a puerile fascination with the problems faced by graphic designers trying to come up with official ‘dog fouling’ and ‘no spitting’ signage and the like, that tries to retain the required, po-faced authority.      

IM: Where did the inspiration for your latest infinite multiple edition '(Fire signage compliant) Relativity by MC Escher + Warden' come from? Why did you choose to disrupt this existing work with the fire exit signs that are so ubiquitous in our everyday lives?

AL: I thought it would be interesting to try to deliberately add another layer of complexity to something that is already incredibly complicated – not to mention impossible. Once I started into it I realised that, of course, each of the nine required fire exit signs would need to be in the correct perspective too. After I had worked it out it would have been simple to have scanned the whole image, complete with signs and reprinted them as required but I didn’t want to do that - I wanted to get the signage produced on the correct shiny, white plastic and then to cut and apply each one, in the correct place, for every edition; literally adding another layer.

IM: There’s an absurdist sensibility running through your work, the sense that trying to control the chaos of the world with signs and written rules of how to behave is in some way futile. Is there any hope? Is your work offering hope?

AL: I find it interesting to force different worlds together: exploring the theatrical choreography of an Evangelist preacher, attempting to make Business Continuity Plans for the zombie apocalypse or hosting a pub quiz based on the Scientology Personality Test. These works, that attempt to take existing systems and reapply them to very different scenarios can, I think, provide exciting results that can test, and teach us about, the systems themselves.