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April 28, 2000
What do a kitchen table, a bag of sand hanging from the ceiling of a museum in New York, and a 100-gram spherical charge of the explosive Nitropenta in an Alpine meadow have in common? Outside the realm of Roman Signer, the three things are not inherently related, but within the world of the Swiss artist's "action sculptures" all three are candidates for spectacular experimental performances. Take, for instance, the kitchen table, which has been featured prominently in Signer's past works. The universal household furnishing can be catapulted from a hotel window, sent arcing through the air and eventually diving into the trees. It can be blown into thousands of small shards by a charge of explosives. Or it can simply be left floating on a lake, its legs centered in four empty buckets, creating a most surreal picture in the landscape.

Born in 1938 in Appenzell, a small town in the middle of Switzerland, Roman Signer has become one of the most - and there is no more appropriate word here - explosive modern artists. After stints as an apprentice to a radio mechanic and the employee of a company producing pressure cookers, Signer worked as a structural engineering draftsman for seven years. In 1966 he entered Zurich's School of Applied Arts, transferring to a program of sculpture studies at Switzerland's Lucerne School of Design three years later. Following additional artistic experiences at the Warsaw Art Academy in Poland, Signer began his career as a freelance artist in 1972, living in the small Swiss city of St. Gallen and returning to the Lucerne School of Design as a guest lecturer from 1971 to 1994.



Signer can be called a performer as well as an artist - his dramatic pieces being dynamic installations of art and performance - but neither label could ever fully give him or his works the credit they deserve. Signer calls his works "actions" rather than performances, and he is, in his own famous words, "somewhere between scientist and explorer, between exploration and explosion." Being closer to scientific and philosophical experiments than to performances, his actions always bear, as he mentions himself, the imminent possibility of failure. "It's possible that, after having worked for weeks, nothing much resulted from that work. I do not care at all. I love the experiment, and experimenting bears in itself the possibility of failure - an incredible freedom! Nature also manifests itself in failure - that's the way it goes," he once explained in a press release. As Jeremy Millar, a Whitstable artist and the curator of an early 90s exhibition of Signer's work in England, put it: "If we think that his experiments fail, then it's because we have misunderstood the nature of inquiry."

Starting from the concept of sculpture as a process, Signer understands his actions as plastic formations in space and time. He makes a distinction between three phases, which are inherent in all his works: the potential of an event, the work process (regarded as a deployment of energy, guided by the forces that are inherent in things), and the traces left behind. Although the vocabulary of Signer's experimental field is broad, some common elements keep popping up and could be considered trademark objects of inquiry: bicycles, cases, barrels, explosives, boots, tables, pyrotechnic rockets. While Signer's "actions" are nothing if not spectacular, most of the objects he employs are anything but.

The transformation of perception - the breakfast table to modern art - is perhaps the most unifying aspect of Signer's work. As an artist he excels at taking objects out of their mundane, concrete existence in daily life and transferring them to the realm of the abstract, providing an incentive for the imagination by placing ordinary items into surreal situations, affording them an unintended priority. Like he did with the kitchen table floating on the lake. Or with the single, furiously rotating rocket-propelled boot, tied to a nail on a tree. As in my favorite Monty Python sketch - the one in which a series of neat bushes on a supposed training ground are blown up in an attempt to reveal the camouflaged troops behind them - there are times when only an absurd (and violent) collision of unlikely elements can let us truly see what was hidden there all along.



Interpretation is a large part of Signer's work, which cannot be seen simply as a distinct method toward a specific end. Spectators must themselves take part in his experiments, through observation, and draw their own conclusions, or at the very least simply appreciate the joy and the surreal aftertaste of the situational comic's actions. Signer does not want to make traditional art, that much is clear. His work is fresh, joyful, and with a slightly subversive touch. Like all visionaries, his work challenges the conventions of "art" as much as they do the conventions of its viewers, and this idea is perhaps best exemplified by his response to the notion of contributing to a museum exhibition:

"Well, since a lot of museums are rather boring, I would simply sleep in the museum. I would be there only during nighttime, guarded by the security guard and his German shepherd. Above the bed, there would be a microphone and an amplifier, and in front of the museum, there would be huge loudspeakers. While I would be sleeping inside, and snoring, there would be, in the town, in front of the museum, this awful snoring to be heard. And during the day, there would simply be my empty bed standing there in the exhibition room, and I would come in again in the evening and sleep there, and so on, during the whole exhibition."

Over the years Signer has indeed been asked to do work for museums, and what he has produced has always been quite in line with the sentiments of that statement. For the opening of a 1990 show at the American Fine Arts Museum in New York, a sack of sand was suspended from the ceiling. Midway through the exhibition, Signer telephoned the gallery from his studio in Switzerland and introduced himself. His call, through a mechanical mechanism, released the hanging sculpture and sent it plummeting to the floor; sand burst across the gallery, where it remained for the duration of the exhibition.



A lot of Signer's work involves destruction - the deployment of energy. In 1993, as an exemplary demonstration of the idea that the image of the world is distorted and can be made to vanish through processes of movement and acceleration, he blew up a pinewood crate with a charge of the explosive Nitropenta. Signer aimed to illustrate in dynamic form that the moved (or, in this case, obliterated) object loses its status as a physical body and becomes a line or dissolves in vibrations. Extension in space is transformed into the acceleration of either the subject or the object through linear time, through extreme fragmentation or by collapsing in an energetic metamorphosis.

These acts of constructive destruction exquisitely bring into focus the process of change from an ordered to an unordered state, the shift from systems to chaos, the natural flow of entropy. However it is not the process of change that fascinates Signer, but rather the precise moment of transformation itself. The core of every piece of his work transpires in a split-fraction of a second. The marrow of Signer's work is, like Ambrose Bierce's "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," in exploring the relativity of our experience to time and space. Signer examines the psychological event rather than the physical one, though physics is, of course, just as important in the process. In the instance that Peyton Farquhar's neck is snapped by the hangman's noose, Bierce delivers a prolonged passage, in precise sensual detail, of the split between perceptive and physical realities. During the immeasurably small instant of death, in his mind, which is his only true reality, Farquhar drops into the river and escapes his Yankee executors, over time making his way back to his family only to sense, as his wife moves to embrace him "a stunning blow upon the back of the neck" and "a blinding white light blazes all about him with a sound like the shock of a cannon - then all is darkness and silence!" That is the art - the idea of infinity of meaning within each moment of real time, of an inner image with an inner logic, a truth of its own, and above all its own dynamics - that Signer hopes to create.

Art that concerns itself with such fleeting instances runs the inherent risk of losing its potency as the recollections of spectators blur and then fade away entirely. To make this fragile moment visible, Signer records his actions on video or in photographs, prolonging the act of art just as Farquhar prolonged the last moment of consciousness. By doing so Signer gives the moments of entropy being visualized an extended life. In what is perhaps his signature piece, a sequence of four images shows a man dressed in black standing in a snow-covered Swiss meadow, a dark coniferous forest in the background. A white woolen hat, pulled down to conceal the man's face, is tethered to a large pyrotechnic rocket planted to his right. Once he has lit the fuse, the man's hands rest by his side, reminiscent of a condemned man before a firing squad. The rocket takes off with such force that the hat is ripped from the man's head, revealing the smiling face of the artist in the final frame.





A third aspect of Signer's work can be found in the connection between the first, the process of the actions, and the second, the moment of transgression from order to chaos. In order to visualize this connection, in the case of the detonated wooden crate, Signer collected and photographed any remains that could be identified as having belonged to the original item, compiling them into a photo book with images of the wooden crate prior to the explosion and the 524 identified remains. After a similar action, the positions of the remains were marked with small red flags, thus making it possible to see the connection between the potential of the event and the traces left behind by the process after it has been completed.





In an artistic sense, Roman Signer is a most outstanding sculptor. Unlike those practicing in the traditional sense of the word, he does not limit himself to working with mere matter but, with space and time as his canvas and brush, makes it possible to perceive physical entities in often complex ways and to appreciate them within an artistic framework. The dramatic manner in which he works is a catalyst for viewers to open their minds as well as their eyes, searching for a meaning or message in his works, but they can be as primitively enjoyable as they are refined. After all, who wouldn't be thrilled at the sight of a kitchen table, mute and without protest, hurtling through the sky toward a backdrop of snow-capped mountains and the prospect of infinity?

--
Samuel Klaus
Samuel Klaus, a native of Zurich, Switzerland, is a legal expert and a contributor-at-large for LAS magazine.

See other articles by Samuel Klaus.

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