Artist’s neon sign calls for understanding in New York and around the world

Martin Creed has planted a revolving neon sign on the East river in Brooklyn inspired by the state of the world and it all started with a secret handshake

Five years ago, the Turner prize-winning British artist Martin Creed had an idea a secret handshake. It wasnt for just anyone; it was for his stepdaughter, who was 10 at the time.

Wed go peace, love and understanding with these hand signals when we were saying goodbye, says Creed over the phone from his home in London.

He and his stepdaughter would make the peace sign together, where they each lifted one finger. Theyd make a love heart with the shape of their hands over their chests. And then, theyd make a symbol for understanding by waving their hands, as if they were creating brainwaves between two people.

Creed calls it a hippy thing, but it became a coping mechanism for stepfamily awkwardness. When I first got to know her, my relationship to her was not clear am I her dad? Am I not her dad? he remembers. This was a way to try and communicate with my stepdaughter, but without saying what it is, in a way.

Now, Creed is taking the word understanding from his secret handshake and emblazoning it in enormous red letters along Brooklyn Bridge Parks Pier Six in New York City. Overlooking the East river, the 25ft-tall revolving neon sculpture simply says Understanding and is open for interpretation. Created with the Public Art Fund, which puts on major works for all in New York, it ties into Creeds first US retrospective, which opens at the Park Avenue Armory on 8 June.

Martin Creed in front of one of his works being installed for his one-man show at the Hayward Gallery in London. Photograph: Andy Hall for the Observer
Originally meant to be a three-part work, the piece would have read Peace, Love and Understanding, but proved too expensive. Creed had to edit it down. I ended up thinking, Maybe all you need is understanding, the artist said. Peace and love can go out of the window a little bit, theyre absolute ideals, but understanding is possible because it includes that what is not possible.

The sculpture goes beyond his family experience to express his view on the wider political environment. I think it has to do with the bloody shit going on in the world at the moment, Creed says. It has to do with wars and communicating with people in a way thats understanding, for lack of a better word.

At the same time, Creeds sculpture is ultimately personal. I want to be understood, he says. Thats what everybody wants. If we have an understanding of other people, or try to understand them and ourselves, it might help a bit.

Martin Creed in his studio in East London. Photograph: Sarah Lee for the Guardian

Creed has worked in a variety of media, from concepts (his work All the Bells, first performed in Costa Rica and then for the London Olympics, encourages the population of a certain place to ring a bell loudly for three minutes) to paintings. Born in West Yorkshire but brought up in Glasgow, hence his Scottish accent, he won the Turner in 2001. The installation he showed for the prize exhibition was Work No 227: The Lights Going On and Off an empty room in which precisely that, and nothing else, happened.

Neon signs are an ongoing series for the artist. Sometimes hes irked, other times hes inspired his emotions filter through his glowing neon works. There are the more hopeful works, like Dont Worry in lemon yellow, and the blazing white phrase Everything is Going to Be Alright, which was hinged at the Hilton in New Yorks Times Square back in 2000.

Then there are his more ill-tempered pieces, such as Fuck Off, Shit and Whatever, which tie into his punk roots, as Creed is also a musician who is releasing his next album on 8 July called Thoughts Lined Up.

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