Crates, explosions and woollen caps. Work by Roman Signer

Jan Winkelmann

St. Gall, 1972. Roman Signer stands on a 44 centimetre high wooden crate in his studio and jumps onto a box containing moist clay. The soles of his bare feet leave two prints in the clay which as a Selbstportrait aus Gewicht und Fallhöhe, a kind of bedstone, form the point of departure for his subsequent output.

Amsterdam, 1995. Roman Signer stands on another wooden crate, 40 centimetres high, at De Appel Foundation. Not barefoot this time, but wearing a woollen cap which is attached to the ceiling by a length of cord. Several small explosions destroy the crate. The force of the fireworks hurls its sides all over the room. The explosion leaves the artist standing on the floor of the collapsed crate. The woollen cap still hovers 40 centimetres above his head, marking the initial height. He departs from the scene, leaving behind him the remnants of the action as a sculpture, Aktion mit einer Kiste und Kappe in the gallery.

Although the two works are somewhat similar as regards the material used in them and the course of events, only an indirect comparison really works. The differences and correspondences between the two works serve to illustrate the underlying ideas of Roman Signer's artistic concept.

Selbstportrait aus Gewicht und Fallhöhe already contains the embryonic essential elements of his later work: processuality, transformation, simple materials, the four elements earth, air, fire and water. As integral components of every work they form the skeleton of Signer's artistic concept and have undergone only minor changes or expansions over the years.

The point of departure for the Selbstportrait as in many of his later works, is the artist's body, which is not actually visible in this case. On the contrary, only the prints left in the damp clay by the weight of his body record that body's previous presence. It is only indirectly present, as a trace in the literal sense of the word. The artist thus visualises his own physical absence, his non-presence. In treating the self-portrait, a traditional motif in art history, in an ironic fashion, he simultaneously expands the term.

Another element of his artistic concept, already present in the Selbstportrait but not explicitly formulated until later, is processuality. While only the result, the outcome of a previous process, is visible in the Selbstportrait, Aktion mit einer Kiste und Kappe incorporates previous phases. Basically, Signer's work falls into three successive phases. The starting-point and hence the first phase consists of the conception, preparation and construction of the possible event. The materials are placed in their 'initial position', lined up like items for a scientific experiment. Their inherent potential energy and change are of crucial importance in this phase. In the second phase, the actual transformation process, the setup changes, a change usually initiated by the artist himself. The relics of the transformation, the third step, record the preceding process. In simplified terms, the materials constituting the work are converted in three phases from a steady state via a dynamic state back into a steady but changed state. All three phases qualify as autonomous sculptures of equal status. During the three stages of the process the beholder has different, unrelated experiences and sensations. The setup enables him to mentally anticipate their potential for generating an event, whereas the actual moment of transformation is shaped by the event itself. The relics enable the beholder to conjure up the previous two phases in his imagination, even if he was not present while they were taking place.

To return to the examples cited at the beginning: while only the result of the previous action can be seen in Selbstportrait, this action is immanent to Aktion mit einer Kiste und Kappe, operating from inside the work. Not until 1981 did Signer make a personal appearance in his works. Although he had always indirectly initiated the process as its trigger, its unleashing factor, he himself remained 'invisible '. His physical presence developed step by step, an important part being played by the films with which he documents his work. Over the years a random selection of Signer's physical attributes, but usually his hands, triggering the transformation process, have featured more and more often. This has gradually led to the use of his body itself as 'working material' and to its appearance in full. Beyond the work's physical presence, the films are part of the work and often its only documentation. Like a 'relic' of the relic, they may thus be regarded as a fourth stage of the process.

As demonstrated by the two examples described above, Signer's materials are not only extremely simple apart from the four elements water, fire, air and earth he uses commonplace items like buckets, crates, barrels, cords, balloons and suchlike but are limited to no more than about thirty objects. All of them are linked to varying degrees with the story of Roman Signer's life, his world of experience and sensations. Like the letters of the alphabet they are assembled and combined in ever-changing variations and constellations, all of which are however distinguished by their simplicity of form and lucidity of content.

This limited repertory of material means that formal resemblance between some of the works cannot be ruled out. By that token Aktion mit einer Kiste und Kappe is 'related' to Mütze mit Rakete (1983), in which a cap attached to a rocket by a cord is swept off Signer's head when the ignited rockets takes off. And also to Aktion mit einer Kiste (1992), in which the crate the artist is standing on explodes under his feet. Nevertheless, a comparison of these works with Aktion mit einer Kiste und Kappe only functions on a formal level. While in the work the cap flies away into what might metaphorically be called infinity, in the other it remains in the same position, at the same height, acting as a yardstick to the beholder's own physique.

Comparisons of Aktion mit einer Kiste und Kappe with Aktion mit einer Kiste yields fewer differences if we confine our considerations to the exploding crate on which the artist is standing. The associations inherent to both works: stability versus lability, the artist portrayed as 'getting to the bottom of the facts', the artist on a plinth, as a statue of himself, and so forth, are only conceivable with reference to themselves. And yet in Aktion mit einer Kiste und Kappe the crate is only part of the whole which acquires a wider field of associations because of the other elements. The obvious association with a stylized execution or suicide by hanging can, whether intended by the artist or not, give the work quite a cynical undertone. And indeed, the artist does not seem to be averse to such frivolous associations in view of his remark: "Man sollte mich nicht so hermetisch betrachten."(1) When, on the other hand, as recently happened, a German showmaster invites Roman Signer to blow a crate to bits under Tina Turner's feet while she is singing, such a reduction of Signer's work to a mere spectacle is probably not quite hermetic enough.

(1) "People should not see me so hermetically."

(Translation: Ruth Koenig)

published in Shift, cat. De Appel Foundation, Amsterdam 1995

© 1995 Jan Winkelmann

German Version