Roman Signer - Action man (4 stars)

Roman Signer - Action man

Rosie Lesso looks at the work of Roman Signer at The Fruitmarket Gallery, and is left reeling at the artist’s energy, urgency and endless ideas

Since the 1970s Swiss artist Roman Signer has been making eccentric kinetic art, enlivening both himself and found objects with elemental forces such as wind, fire, water or explosives. At first glance, Signer’s clowning around seems to lack substance, perhaps due to its playful immediacy and instant accessibility, but give it time; there is more to it than meets the eye.

Downstairs, an emphasis is placed on Signer’s video work, which is almost always set outdoors. In the first room a row of television monitors show films in which destructive acts take place. In one, a bridge is consumed by fire, while, in another, a flimsy table is tied to several red balloons, the table starting a bid for freedom before each balloon is shot down by Signer’s rifle, bringing the table crashing down to earth. Elsewhere, larger screens display films of Signer taking part in mock-destructive activities such as holding lit fireworks in each hand, the force of the explosives making his revolving chair spin round and round, or being ‘attacked’ by flying hay (Signer is a hay fever sufferer). The amusing effects are more smirk-inducing than laugh out loud, but, after a while his bad behaviour begins to seem rather melancholic. Indeed, the sight of an expressionless, drably dressed man partaking in strange solitary activities in the wilderness has a tragic air.

Signer has a repertoire of found objects he re-uses frequently in both his videos and sculptures. One of these is the kayak, which has been displayed in the gallery here after being blown into three parts by explosives. The barrel is also common, appearing here in two different guises: sitting upright with a viewing slit cut into it as ‘Observation Tower’ (1991), and elsewhere set in motion by electric fans, rolling back and forth between two wooden wedges, in ‘Rolling Barrel’ (2007). These and other utilitarian objects are allowed to become unconventional, badly behaved, creating a break with their usual role in polite society. In other sculptures we find curious combinations of found objects, such as armbands placed on skis, or an umbrella fired through a suitcase by a cannon. The signifying codes of association are ruptured; in the latter work, symbols of the well to do repressed businessman are replaced by aggression and violence. It is this ability to transform ordinary objects which Fruitmarket curator Fiona Bradley calls ‘alchemy and magic’. Bradley is also keen to emphasise the importance of the instant, given moment in Signer’s work, sharing her view that, ‘whether film, installation or sculpture, it exists in the gallery and for the viewer as an insistent presence’.

Signer can be seen as part of a lineage of artists working in the 1970s who made found object works, but it is a particularly American, minimalist legacy which has informed his attitude that object-based sculptures should not hold or create personal narratives. He feels removed from them, saying instead, ‘I am the artist, it is the object.’ Yet, in spite of this supposed detachment we are given little glimpses into his character and Signer’s sense of urgency is revealing, as if he is a man hurtling towards later life with a fear of not leaving behind a legacy. Although he is brimming with ever more ridiculous ideas he recently said with resignation, ‘There just isn’t time to try everything.’

Roman Signer, Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh, until Sun 27 Jan

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