Roman Signer

Though a finalist for the 2008 Hugo Boss Prize (or perhaps the winner, by the time this magazine hits the stands), Roman Signer is not well known in the United States; in fact, before the Rochester Art Center’s recent exhibition, his work had not seen a large-scale survey in the US since the Cranbrook Art Museum staged one in 1997. Born in Switzerland in 1938, Signer has been working for the past three decades in a poetic style that mobilizes chance, humor, found objects, and a distinctive type of performance, which is often presented in film. From our perspective today, Signer’s pared-down assemblage and his emphasis on the temporal event read as a missing link between 1970s Conceptualism and the relational attitude of contemporary artists like Gabriel Orozco and Felix Gonzalez-Torres.

Favoring objects that speak of the body in motion (such as kayaks and bicycles), Signer, like many artists who came of age in the ’70s, works with elemental materials: earth, air, water, and fire. Yet he avoids the heroics of Land art and the edgy spectacle of early performance art. Gravel Cone and Kayak, 2006, for example, is exactly that—a red kayak sticking out of a huge pile of gravel. Displayed outside the building, where it cut a dramatic silhouette against the zinc-and-glass facade, the work brought the static industrial ontology of the contemporary structure into dialogue with the Zumbro River, located but a few yards away. It is hard to miss Signer’s humor in this work, the kayak resembling a projectile catapulted from a distance; one imagines it having landed with an unceremonious thud.

Just inside the building, a series of flat-screen monitors ran a sampling of Signer’s film shorts. In Kajak (Kayak), 2000, the artist, seated in a kayak tied to a moving van, is dragged along an otherwise tranquil road in the Swiss countryside. A few cows briefly run alongside the vehicle; the clanking of their bells mixes with the sound of gravel scraping fiberglass. This ridiculous sequence concludes with Signer, like the natural philosophers of old, one imagines, examining the results of his experimental investigation of the material world. Bürostuhl (Office Chair), 2006, shows Signer seated, with outstretched arms and, in each hand, a lighted rocketlike firework—one pointing forward, the other backward, the chair spinning in response to their force. While these deadpan documentary-style films are funny, they are also gorgeous in their simplicity.

Like his films, Signer’s sculptures and installations are characterized by an economy of means and a commitment to the transformation of the ordinary. In Rochester, one gallery was given over to Bar, 2007, an installation made up of six half-empty whiskey bottles hanging by cords from the ceiling above six electric fans pointing upward. Powered on, the fans produce drafts that set the bottles in motion. The hum of fans and the slow, perpetual orbiting of the booze bottles enlivened the entire room. One of the most memorable works in the exhibition was Rad (Wheel), 2008, a bicycle wheel frozen upright in a block of ice. So delicate that if its surrounding conditions changed even slightly it would fall apart, this uncanny ephemeral object requires extraordinary measures for its maintenance. Aware of both the humor and the irony in the installation, the viewer can only peer at the wheel through the chilled window of a large walk-in freezer.

Signer focuses on the material world as a kind of brute substance and brings into view that most evanescent of dimensions, the temporal. Like some of his younger contemporaries who also integrate found objects and understated performance elements, Signer seems intent on cutting through the ideological and discursive registers to reveal some- thing more unmediated, perhaps even “real.”

Patricia Briggs