I find television very educating. Every time somebody turns on the set, I go into the other room and read a book. - Groucho Marx

Slapstick Detonations: Roman Signer Time Based Sculpture

by Gabriella Arrigoni
Sept. 23, 2013

I always thought that there was something weird about the discrepancy between the physics explained at school and the current status of the art. The laws of thermodynamics, Lagrange's theorem and the like were able to generate in everyone a strong belief in the infallibility of the cause-effect principle: given A, we'll obtain B. In the first half of the XXth Century though, one of the biggest scientific revolutions in human history took place, which is still ignored by most people. Quantum physics demonstrated how (at least at the level of micro-particles) the way a certain effect follows a cause is after all just a matter of probability. It also showed that the presence of an observer can radically affect the outcome of an experiment. Ok, if you put a banana in the fridge you’ll always find it wasn’t a brilliant idea, but still -- it’s possible to have a look to this cause-effect principle under a different, less deterministic light. Swiss artist Roman Signer, for example, creates sculptural events based on causality, exploring reactions determined by natural forces, such as water, fire or wind, and phenomena like explosion, collision or acceleration. His pieces always consist in three phases: the set up of a carefully engineered situation, the reaction itself, and its traces (which include impermanent material remnants on site and, even more significantly, photo or video documentation).

Useless and unproductive, when not excitingly destructive, these "experiments" don’t seem to look for a new law governing the natural world, or for the confirmation of a certain hypothesis, but instead they sound like a claim for transgression and anarchy. As argued by Bakhtin1 in his theory of the carnivalesque, there is nothing like absurd and mindless destruction to assault the authority and contest (alleged) truths. After all, the institutional critique was just around the corner – but this is another story. Destruction, disorder and decay build the crucial pattern adopted by Signer to include the dimension of time in his sculptural work. Because Signer always considered himself essentially as a sculptor and his main concern is space, space production and space disturbance; and how to incorporate the time of experience (the time of the making of the piece itself2) in its plastic creation.

From the early Seventies he began creating, orchestrating choreographies of slow and fast movements, different levels of energy, sudden forces impacting static or dynamic elements. “I must get to grips with transience” he once said in an interview reported by Gerhard Mack (1995) 3. Accordingly he found a way to visualise the trajectory of a bike around two columns with a yellow ribbon (“Gelbes Band” 1982), or the time it takes (35 days) for a fuse lit in Appenzell, Signer’s birthplace, to burn till it reaches other end in St.Gallen (at a distance of 20 Km), where the artist now lives (“Aktion mit einer Zündschnur” 1989). The ephemeral nature of these sculptures talks about vanity, impossibility, and loss -- just because, for a human being, there is probably something tragic in every representation of time. That feeling is dramatically intensified by the choice of objects made by the artist. Process Art had seen its apex by the end of the Sixties, and its stress on transformation and action, rather than on the production of a final manufacture, is certainly part of Signer’s poetic. Instead of adopting the same purity of forms and materials, his vocabulary embraces objects of the everyday (bicycles, chairs, tables, umbrellas, suitcases, barrels, boots, an Ape Piaggio van...) and situations intimately connected with his personal experiences -- those of a kid who spent his youth cycling, hiking and kayaking in the mountains, and perhaps sometimes playing with explosives bought from his fire-brigadier uncle.

If the idea of twisting objects’ functionality has been part of the history of art since the appearance of the first ready-made, there seems to be a more specifically Swiss tendency towards a pyrotechnic, kinetic sculpture bound to a self-destructive destiny (Jean Tinguely) together with a spectacular drive for low scale apocalypses, purposeless chain reactions intended to reveal the universal entropy as well as the absurdity and alienation of the human condition (Fishli & Weiss).

What is distinctive in Signer’s work, however, is a sense of nostalgia raised by familiar, affectionate objects -- a feeling that in the end would be better described as tragicomic, charged with the exaggerated violence of a slapstick comedy, or maybe similar to a theatre with no actors where things are animated by a deadpan, bitter sense of humor. When a detonation fires chairs out of the windows, or a record player is suffocated to death by a bag of sand dropped from the ceiling, the cause-effect relationship in our emotional states is also affected. Explosions, destruction and chaos come to us within the reassuring framework of the art context: there is a drama going on which might be dangerous but is not scary, and reminds us of the old black and white westerns where chairs were thrown out of the saloon during a fight, where the suspense generated by a slowly burning fuse is balanced by the awareness that the spectacle was specifically built for the purpose of observation and is therefore under control. In a sort of cultural deja-vu, perhaps, a little table levitating under the pressure of a water jet suggests us we are in front of a sequence from The Invisible Man, and water drums falling off the Piaggio van creates the echo of thousands of catastrophic cartoon scenes -- massive impacts, but nobody gets hurt. Like a great magician who can reveal his tricks without losing his astonishing power, Signer works with causality to celebrate indeterminacy. And if the outcome is funny, in the end, it is perhaps because we can’t really face the weight of the instability of our existence without a bit of a sense of humor. And after all, the end of world always sells well.


1. Angela Dimitrakak, The Spatial Principle in the Art of Roman Signer and Monika Sosnowska, 2007.

2. Rosalind Krauss, Passages in Modern Sculpture, 1977.

3. Gerhard Mack: “Roman Signer”, in Kritisches Lexikon der Gegenwartskunst. Monaco, n. 30/1995.

Gabriella Arrigoni is an independent curator and writer; former editor
in chief of undo.net, she now contributes to a number of contemporary
art magazine. She lives in Newcastle upon Tyne (UK) where she also
works as translator. She is part of the collective Nopasswd
in[ter]dependent contemporary culture.