Arts review: Roman Signer: Installations

IF you could choose a famous artist and swap places with that person for a day, surely Roman Signer would be a frontrunner.
Kayaks, cannons and catapults are all employed in Roman Signers Installations. Picture: ContributedKayaks, cannons and catapults are all employed in Roman Signers Installations. Picture: Contributed
Kayaks, cannons and catapults are all employed in Roman Signers Installations. Picture: Contributed

Roman Signer: Installations

Dundee Contemporary Arts


Who wouldn’t want to take a swivel chair outside and spin themselves round by the momentum of a firework going off in each hand? Or fire a kayak at a wall using a huge rubber catapult?

Now 77, the Swiss artist is having to temper somewhat his experiments with force, friction, gravity and things that go boom, but his popularity continues to rise, and his influence on fresh generations of artists continues to multiply. He was the subject of a major show at the Fruitmarket in 2007, and returned to Scotland to work with Deveron Arts in 2010.

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This show at DCA - a combination of old and new works which illustrate different strands in his practice - comes on the heels of the Barbican’s Slow Movement, where he made a kayak gradually traverse the gallery space. Here, the same kayak gets fired at a wall: the catapult is released when a candle flame burns through its anchor rope. It lies where it fell, next to a moderate dent in the plasterwork; a film of the “event” can be viewed in the foyer.

And here lies the paradox in Signer’s work. One might associate him with things that fizz and fly and go bang, but the exhibition itself is strangely still and quiet. His objects are less important in themselves than for the actions they have performed, or might be about to perform. The smaller gallery at DCA is full of fence posts standing on end, in what could almost be a formal piece of minimalist sculpture, save a few which have fallen like dominos after Signer pushed over the post at the corner. One can’t shake the feeling that one has missed the magic moment. The action itself takes a few seconds, and after it has passed, not all of the world have much to sustain the viewer’s attention.

Those that hold their action in potentia are more interesting. A home-made canon points a football towards a tent. Although there is no visible firing mechanism, one can’t help imagining what would happen on impact. Bar is a kinetic sculpture in which five bottles of whisky are suspended from the ceiling, spinning slowly like drunks on a dancefloor, driven by electric fans on the floor below. It, at least, has a mesmerising quality and conjures some interesting visual metaphors.

But perhaps the most interesting work here is Vers la flamme, a film of a performance in which concert pianist Vikingur Olafsson plays Scriabin’s piana sonata of the same name on a floating platform in the middle of Lake Vernago in Austria. In an allusion to Scriabin’s belief that technology would cause the world to overheat catastrophically, a helicopter appears as the piece nears its climax, hovering low - one might think, perilously low - over the pianist, creating waves which rock his flimsy floating stage. The film makes us present at the moment, a visceral thrill of disruption - even danger - which makes the ordinary world look slightly different for a while.