Roman Signer

Moore College of Art & Design

Forgoing his signature explosions, Roman Signer opened his recent exhibition (part of the Moore International Discovery Series, which features artists whose reputations were established largely outside the United States) with a brief “action.” With the help of his pilot Armin Caspari, he used the downwind from a small (five-foot-long) battery-operated helicopter to force a large empty mental drum from one gallery space into another. The event was characteristic of many of Signer’s actions, in which natural forces provoke and alter ordinary objects or materials in simple yet dynamic ways, creating, in the process, a drawing that exists in both space and time. The opening night’s event was followed by a day-long symposium during which Signer’s films and videos (depicting actions and documenting the construction of sculptures) were presented and discussed by a group of notable critics and curators—a marked contrast to the relative silence that surrounded much of work in the gallery. Despite their sense of distance from the events themselves, the films and videos were the most expansive and convincing expression of Signer’s practice.

In the gallery were a group of objects representing potential or already completed acts. In Velo mit Gelbem Band (Bicycle with yellow ribbon, 1982), a red bicycle sat next to a supporting column wrapped in yellow ribbon. In a nod to the moment Signer made the piece by riding the bicycle around the column, the ribbon’s end was still attached to the cycle. Fass mit Spraydose (Barrel with spraycan, 1995) conjured a more compelling set of associations. Lying on its side, a large blue metal drum was fitted with a spraycan whose nozzle was secured in a depressed position. As the drum rolled along the gallery floor, it created a row of wavy lines—traces of its movement and of the can’s spray. A kind of painting machine, it evoked Jean Tinguely’s own fanciful mechanized works, but visually Signer’s controlled, serialized image had a decidedly minimalist aesthetic. Another example of a repeated image staged in time was Roter Teppich (Red carpet, 1994), a floor piece with markings that periodically registered the black-powder residue of timed detonations.

The most seductive work in the exhibition was, like Fass mit Spraydose, based on the notion of a painting machine and provided the best entrance into the complex pathos and humor of Signer’s work. In Windmill, 1996 (one of two videos that ran simultaneously in their own viewing room), Signer stood dangerously close to the turning vanes of a windmill, trying to catch on an upheld canvas the wet paint he had splashed onto the vanes. When the view shifts to that of a Super-8 camera, also attached to the windmill’s moving arms, gravity as well as personal safety seem to have been sacrificed. The second video, Bett (Bed, 1996), presented a hypnotic image of the small helicopter hovering above Signer’s blanket-clad, sleeping form. Marked by the occasional shifting of the blanket and a window curtain not far away, the singularity of the event was enhanced by the relentless sound and appearance of this small machine that looked like a giant bug, out of scale and place, and positioned the viewer as witness to some strange dream. While the videos were the most rewarding moment of this exhibition, one wonders about the adequacy of the still images to the works themselves, and how, beyond video documentation, Signer’s ephemeral materialism might best be represented.

Eileen Neff