Roman Signer

Roman Signer
KINDL Center for Contemporary Art
To June 28, 2015

I wish I could see the world in slow-motion.

                    – Roman Signer

At the time of this review, Swiss artist Roman Signer was showing work in nine galleries across seven countries, including Germany, Italy, France and China. Although he is currently represented by six international galleries, Signer has been based out of the small northern city of St. Gallen – eight kilometres from the town of his birth – since 1971. To call his work interdisciplinary would be an understatement. The sculptures, performances and videos that he has become famous for involve a seemingly endless multitude of materials and processes. Much like his life, his practice exhibits a fascinating contrast between the simple and the monumental. Through a series of gestures and interventions that range from the playful and absurd to the sensational and sometimes violent, Signer’s work can be read as a method for investigating life.

Signer uses art to set up scenarios that expand the zone between intentional human action and the uncontrollable forces of nature and chance. His repeated use of his own body endows the work with a certain level of intimacy and connects the material world with that of the human hand. Although he often uses found or minimally altered materials, his work can be characterized in part by a physical approach to fabrication that fosters a unique connection to the elemental. This contrast is elucidated by the way that the work so successfully navigates the art/life divide. There is a definitive yet often elusive realness present that encourages the viewer to suspend disbelief. It is almost as though the work believes it’s real and, therefore, we are able to believe the work.

On a recent trip to Berlin, I had the privilege of experiencing one of Signer’s newest works. Kitfox Experimental is the first work to occupy KINDL, the former boiler house-turned-gallery of this impressive art complex. The piece consists of a Kitfox Classic IV lightweight airplane suspended from the 65-foot high ceiling of the gallery and rotating ever so slowly from the force of two powerful wall-mounted fans. Kitfox fits into Signer’s self-defined series of ‘time sculptures’: three-dimensional objects in space that are subject to, and encourage awareness of, the forces and passages of energy and time. Undeniably sensational but in no way petty, the work was refreshingly enjoyable to experience. The high-gloss finish of this bright yellow and red aircraft emanated a paradoxical mixture of grace and tension by embodying equal amounts of potential and kinetic energy. After following the deep echo of my own footsteps across the concrete floors, I found myself standing thirteen feet below an aircraft with a 32-foot wingspan, weighing in at just over 1,000 pounds. The Classic IV was built in the early 1990s for improved handling and stability. As a home-built kit plane (indicated by the letters ‘HB-YER’ painted on the underside of its left wing and right side of its body), it is a rather fitting readymade for an artist who’s practice often combines a careful selection of real-life elements with a slight intervention from the artist’s hand. We can only assume that the artist himself took part in the assemblage of this plane; however, it is its installation – the way it dangles and spins and the fact that it is even there – that roots it within the language of Singer’s greater artistic practice.

What do we make of an airplane that appears to be locked in the perpetual state of a slow-motion tailspin? The first feeling I experienced was one of exhilaration. Standing directly beneath an object that could so easily crush me was obviously part of this, but something else much more banal was also triggering my excitement: this is the kind of art that can only exist when we have access to spaces large enough to host it. The act of putting an everyday object on display is of course nothing new. Artists who choose to continue this tradition today must find a way to prove its continued relevance. The conversation may not be over, but it has become decidedly more complicated. In the case of Kitfox Experimental, the piece worked so well because it had exactly the right amount of intervention for it to just barely exit the realm of the real. It functioned as a piece of 21st Century installation assemblage, made from pre-manufactured pieces and installed as a sort of kinetic still life.

We could, if we wanted, enter into a discussion about the endless tailspin of modernity. Or, we could just enjoy the perfect balance of fear and freedom that the movement of the craft implies. In the end, the work was successful because it conveyed the illusion of simplicity. Every one of the decisions that Signer made – every subtle inclusion and every omission – were present but invisible in the final product. Perhaps it takes over four decades of practising art to perfect control over the perspective from which viewers perceive the most familiar things in life. Then again, perhaps this is just an artist fulfilling his wish to see the world in slow motion. Either way, I am grateful for the attempt.