Roman Signer

Perhaps the most startling piece in Roman Signer’s recent show was a seven-foot-high wooden crate that sat in the middle of the room and contained the debris of a helicopter crash. The helicopter was a toy model, however, and the artist staged the crash to occur at the opening of his show. Operated by remote control, the helicopter whizzed around inside the crate until it hit one of the sides, flew out of control, and, with a last high wail of its little motor, destroyed itself within the narrow confines of the box. Viewers could observe the action through a doorway-size opening in the crate, and the possibility of the vehicle escaping and wreaking havoc on the gallery space only added to the drama. Two video cameras recorded the violent death, from above and from one side. Both tapes reveal in the event an ambivalence between power and vulnerability, as a man-made apparatus appeared to die like a living organism, a dragonfly smashed to bits and captured in its death throes.

Signer looks again and again for that point at which some constellation of elements is pushed to a decisive transformation. Critics usually highlight the spectacular media used in his work—explosions, “interventions” of fire, wind, and water—and place it in the context of arte povera or the Conceptual and process art of the ’70s. It is the laconic shaping of an event, however, that makes Signer’s long-standing, extremely self-sufficient development of a body of work especially relevant today. As a sculptor, Signer does not create self-contained works or arrange the course of an action in space. Rather, he prepares a space for an event whose unfolding cannot be entirely directed. Nothing is left to chance, until, at the last moment, chance is consciously brought into play, so that risk affects the outcome as much as the artist who instigated the situation. Sägearbeit (Saw work), 1999, comprises a can and a saw resting on a table splattered with paint. For this work, the artist cut through a spray can in open air with a metal saw, an action in which it is not only unforeseeable how the freed paint will spray across the shiny surface of the table—but the possibility of an “accidental” explosion looms large.

Unique events made present only through their traces are characteristic of Signer’s recent works, which also feature processes made visible, such as the sudden flaring up and rapid burning of a Christmas tree. This conflagration repeats itself like a liturgy in a tower of six video monitors, each playing a different stage of the same tree going up in flames. Over every work, independent of the duration of the event, is suspended the charged question: What happens? The space of the sculpture stands in potentia.

In another work, two electric fans are posed across from one another. While the blades of one turn, powered by its motor, the other fan is left unplugged, its blades rotating only in response to the air current caused by the other. This silent, continuous circumstance probes the question of whether we are still living in a world of comprehensible causality. With the utmost sharpness, Signer’s works persistently leave this question open.

Hans Rudolf Reust

Translated from German by Diana Reese.