Roman Signer

Francesca Pia

Roman Signer has made a reputation for himself as a pyrotechnician, event artist, and producer of chain reactions and controlled catastrophes. For his public and private experiments, which he documents on video, he manipulates water, fire, wind, and earth with gunpowder, fuses, and dynamite. He is a low-tech magician who makes a visible process of liberating natural forces. In an exhibit of fuses and 13 cameras at the Kunsthalle in Freiburg, Switzerland this April, for example, he exploded a canoe in which he was crossing the river—and he almost sank, too.

This exhibit contained objects that refer to his performances, but also hold their own as self-contained sculptures; they function as catalysts for the viewer’s speculations, suppositions, or memories. Each object has, according to Signer, a secret, a history, like a human being. Thus, the upright steel pipe shown here is actually a “sky cannon,” which he has used many times since 1986. Next to it he has placed five blue shot puts that he shoots into the air, waiting for their return near the cannon’s mouth. “After 20 to 30 seconds of dead silence, the shot put roared” back to earth only one and a half meters from him. He indicated dryly that such an experiment is to be avoided and that he will not repeat it. In these detonations Signer wants to observe the moment when the blue ball disappears into the sky—that moment when it reaches the apex of its ascent, momentarily stops, and thus has negated gravity.

He compares the suspension of time and space in a detonation with the intense concentration required in shooting an arrow, or in white-water rafting. And he is always concerned with energy: with trapped energy—when he encloses fireworks in a plastic pipe—or with potential energy—when he attaches a fuse to a little handcart and affixes the end of the fuse to the wall, so that with any movement of the cart ignition would occur. The burning fuse would, however, only mark a passage of time without leading to an explosion. Despite this, the viewer is tempted to unleash the catastrophic forces by moving the cart and activating the volatile energies.

His other objects too—for example, a sandbag on a kitchen stool, or the explosive tryst of two pyrotechnic rockets and a bottle of vodka—point to Signer’s private and daily life. Even if the accidents suggested by these objects are only hypothetical, their artificiality and limitation bespeak the comic side of fatality and carry his jerry-built signature. As these references to natural catastrophes have such humble and unpathetic appearances, they provoke flashes of sudden epiphanies that affect us with subtly tuned, unexpected violence.

––Claudia Jolles

Translated from the German by Charles V. Miller.