Dead-pan Chaplin with bombs?
In a sequence of four photographs a man dressed in black stands in a snow-covered
Swiss meadow, a dark coniferous forest in the background. A white woollen
hat, pulled down to conceal his face, is tied to a large firework standing
to his right. Once he has lit the fuse his hands rest by his side, reminiscent
of a condemned man before a firing squad. The rocket takes off with such
a force that the hat is whipped from his head, revealing the face of the
In his experiments, Roman Signer discovers in his own back yard, laws
that Isaac Newton discovered 300 years before. Signer is, in his own words,
"somewhere between scientist and explorer, between exploration and
explosion." His show at the Photographers' Gallery in London
in March, is curiously his first major British exhibition. Having trained
in Poland as an architectural draughtsman, from the early 70's Signer
began creating 'actions'. Possibly a kind of personal reconstruction
following an asthma-related illness that meant extended periods in hospital.
Previously, a competitive canoeist and mountain hiker, he now put his
energy into constructing what he has referred to as little 'Alpine
Dramas'. In 1971, influenced by Lamorisse's 1956 film Le Ballon
Rouge, he documented balloons released at intervals across the Bodensee.
Signer takes the word 'action' (not happenings) from the Vienna
Actionists, a group interested in masochistic body-ritual in the 50's
and 60's. Signer prefers not to draw blood, but his works are nonetheless
perilous. There exists a natural impulse to institutionalise unfamiliar
work by classifying it in our own terms. To disregard anything as original
and look to our own 'stream of consciousness' associations.
Everyone has a favourite Python sketch. In one of mine, a series of
neat bushes on a supposed MOD training ground are blown up in an attempt
to reveal the camouflaged troops behind them. Like Monty Python, part
of the enjoyment is in the recounting, time and again playing out the
scene as if it was as fresh as first shown. In the tradition of surreal
comedy, the collision of unlikely elements in fundamental.
Signer spends much time experimenting with a ready-made vocabulary, which
might include: 'bicycle', 'case', 'barrel',
'explosives', 'boots' and 'table'. The energy
to trigger the actions could be natural, a river or gravity, or manufactured,
explosives or a catapult. Timing and speed are also important components.
Signer sees the greatest part of these solo trials to be the preparation,
the actual (often momentary) event does not hold special significance
Signer's gallery exhibitions have included actions and installations,
their resulting traces and - as here - their photo and video documents.
For his 1990 show at American Fine Arts in New York, a sack of sand was
suspended from the ceiling. Mid-exhibition at a predesignated time, Signer
telephoned the gallery from his studio in Switzerland and introduced himself.
His call mechanically released the hanging sculpture which plummeted to
the floor. Sand burst across the gallery, where it remained for the duration.
While his works indeed seem frivolous, Signer has the credibility of other
early 70's time-based artists, reliant on the photo-document. But
placing him in the wake of Smithson, Kaprow and the Happeners, some criticise
him for not being overtly discursive. It is true, the playing out of entropy,
the authority of the document, the relation of unconfined location to
museum are unmistakable qualifications. Counter to that casting, I would
not expect to see 'The collected writings of Roman Signer' in
the shops next Christmas; he is more interested in 'practical questions.'
But compare and contrast the dignified silence Signer often maintains,
with the enigmatic public persona assumed by Warhol at interviews. Or
Sherman - who one suspects greatly appreciated the role of witness
to her own critical acclaim - seldom accepting or denying any theoretical
account. Signer, not peddling sophisticated irony, is completely sincere.
On a Sunday afternoon when the weather is fine, perhaps the Signers would
go into the country to film some experiments, trying out proto-actions - play
and trial are his favourite means of discourse. "It's me"
he insists, "it's not another language - it's me all
the time." Roman Signer is not Robert Smithson.
No More Flat Feet
Neither is he (as has often been implied) consciously positioned in
the legacy of the Situationist International or Zurich Dada. The directness
of means should not be simply construed as guerrilla tactics. In one example
a table catapulted from a hotel window hurtles vainly towards the snow-capped
mountains, diving into the trees. Another was a timed device in an exhibition,
the viewing public kept in the dark as to detonation time. To the extent
that violence is presented in Signer's actions, it tends to be directed
nowhere in particular. His exercises take place in the Swiss landscape
and make not the slightest bit of difference to the outside world. At
their most elaborate they are once in a lifetime events - uncompromising
potlatch - and Signer still has energy to waste. Where else but in
a general economy would we see such an unashamed expenditure of energy
for absolutely no gain? The point is, Signer's project is not consciously
engaged in the social realm.
I had already imagined him as a Chaplinesque figure but when I spoke to
Signer it was he who broached the subject. I think Modern Times may be
a favourite, because Chaplin arrives in New York carrying a case - part
of the Signer vocabulary. Consider the slapstick, and Chaplin too is not
unaccustomed to failure.
Now picture Guy Debord, bodily preventing the press from entering the
Paris Ritz in 1952 for Chaplin's great press conference promoting
his film, Limelight. This was how the Lettrist International (preceding
the SI) chose to launch its first assault. They chanted: "No More
Flat Feet!" Also the heading of their leaflet, which read:
...Because you've identified yourself with the weak and the oppressed,
to attack you has been to attack the weak and the oppressed - but in
the shadow of your rattan cane some could already see the nightstick of
a cop...but for us, the young and beautiful, the only answer to suffering
is revolution... Go to sleep, you fascist insect... Go home Mister Chaplin.
To the Lettrist's, Chaplin had defected to the Spectacle. Signer's
self-sufficiency makes him no revolutionary, his is a distant trajectory
of personal discovery. His work manages to particularise the so-called
universal. I asked, "why do you make actions?" His response:
"Why climb a mountain?"
Not included in the present classification
When Signer says, "I must get to grips with transience,"
I believe he refers to physical actions and their consequences, not least
his own impermanence. But he could just as easily be referring to the
impermanence of the artwork and its photo-document. He told me (dryly)
that the video works would degrade first, then the photographs. The most
lasting testimony would be his diagrammatic drawings of actions. Another
kind of transience is similar to the void which lies within Smithson's
Spiral Jetty: the photograph refers to the 'core' of the work,
but the 'core' was never visible. Very often for Signer nothing
much really happens.
In one film Signer is seated with a blow torch and candle mounted on the
floor in front of him. As he tugs on a string the candle is blasted with
a 2 foot jet of flame. But after repeated attempts, no change. I heard
that Wordsworth visited the Swiss mountains, expecting to experience some
sublime, life-changing transfiguration but returned unchanged and probably
a little morose. Lots of Signer's actions are a bit crap too.
As the show's curator, Jeremy Millar says: "If we think that
his experiments fail, then it is because we have misunderstood the nature
of enquiry." It is precisely this lack of sophistication that is
so appealing. They are low-tech with low production values and yet the
photo-documents are spuriously seductive. Their all over amateurism is
the currency of up-to-the-minute 90's advertising imagery. The unexpressive
document floats, as the image quality causes it to be at once immanent
and distant. Like a telephone voice, the removed is confronted by the
direct and intimate.
Millar has arranged video monitors nonchalantly behind screens, so you
meet the actions as if stumbling across them in a wooded glade. You would
sit on a tree stump in the shadows and watch the private ritual being
acted-out beneath shafts of sunlight. A single rocket propelled boot rotating
furiously around a nail on a tree gets one of the biggest laughs.
In another video Signer emerges from the back of a gallery wearing a metallic
protective suit including boots, gloves and helmet, marching a circuitous
route, each deliberately placed step activating a small explosive device
in his path. There's a self-evidence only before seen in the kind
of safety training videos the fire service produce for company employees.
Signer's latest works show he is aware of his new younger audience.
Protective gear suggesting a fetishistic reading of the vocabulary, and
new elements added to it: model helicopters, a net-wrapped Christmas tree
as an inept javelin. Others are greatly enthused by the unhinged aspect
of the work, brought about by its lack of explanation. Signer agreed that
in the absence of a caption or prior knowledge of the work, the viewer
was inclined to invent other stories as explanations of the photograph.
Viewing the unguarded image outside the context that reveals it as loaded
with concept, evinces a resistance to the classification impulse I mentioned
before. But rather than the didactic subversion typical of other 70's
art, Signer's is included in a more contemporary institutional critique
based on mockery, the absurd. The subtle undermining of the system is
reinforced by the dematerialisation of the artwork - the document also
being a distancing device.
An attraction of the deadpan, unsentimental documentation which has become
increasingly a persistent 'style' of the 90's, is its ambiguity.
Whether it be Hilla and Bernd Becher's, typographical shots of industrial
structures or Fishli and Weiss' random video footage, uninflected
documents are most open to misunderstanding. Like Signer, this 'loose
cannon' effect is part of their achievement.