In one of the galleries that house Roman Signer’s current exhibition “Four Rooms, One Artist,” at the Swiss Institute in New York’s SoHo, a single apple hangs by a string from the ceiling. The space is otherwise empty, and painted an antiseptic Swiss white. Waiting for Harold Edgerton (2010) is an homage to the pioneer of high-speed stop-action photography, who famously caught the image of a bullet exiting an apple into which it had been shot. But it is also a wry comment by the 72-year-old Signer on his own work, which over 40 years has frequently involved explosions of all kinds. Indeed, he has become best known for this aspect of his oeuvre, which is in fact much more multifaceted, involving scads of objects and performances with nary a fuse—leaving one to conclude that the apple, left slowly to rot over the two months the show is on view, is also a bit of humor at the artist’s own expense. The piece is typically understated; Signer’s career modesty has perhaps partly contributed to the neglect he has suffered in the U.S. (In Europe, by contrast, Signer has had a number of major shows, and represented his native Switzerland at the 1999 Venice Biennale.)
The exhibition offers a rare opportunity to see Signer’s work outside of Europe, where it has resonated more naturally with movements like Arte Povera and Kinetic art, and with art by Tinguely and Beuys. (Though one also thinks of the early low-tech videos of Vito Acconci and William Wegman, by turns ominous and playful.) Signer has used the opportunity to show in New York wonderfully well. There are no explosions here, except for the mostly failed attempts chronicled in Restenfilm (Film Remains), screening on a wall in the installation Cinema (2010). The projection consists of montaged, DVD-transferred snippets from the Super-8 films that were the documentary mainstay of Signer’s ephemeral pieces between 1973 and ’87. (He began relying exclusively on video in 1993, when his wife, the Polish-born artist Aleksandra Signer, took over the job of shooting and editing the events in that medium.) Signer has long promised that this compilation would come to be—and it has, to great effect; mesmerized, we watch for about an hour as snow melts, fuses short, objects spin pointlessly, rivers engorge, and kayaks that were never meant to be sleds lurch comically through winter terrain. I cannot describe the pleasure I felt watching these Resten—patently handmade, cheerfully abject and above all non-spectacular. Truly, Signer is the anti-Cai Guo-Qiang.
To watch the film, I sat in a group of near-deserted wooden classroom chairs arranged in rows. In the last row, a single chair, hooked up by a thin rope to a mechanism behind, tipped back and forth as if occupied by an impatient ghost. The tapping sound it made was not irritating, but (to me) oddly companionable. In the room beyond, a baby grand piano emitted gentle wavelike sounds (Piano, 2010) redolent of late-20th-century avant-garde music. The “player” was several dozen Ping-Pong balls blown about on the strings by two floor-standing fans—Cagey in more ways than one. Together, the two installations—with their meditative yet surreal ambience—impart a sense of the high yields Signer exacts from the most minimal means, though the prepared piano, in its sheer familiarity as a type, makes for perhaps the least satisfying of the installations on view.
The fourth room contains three wall-projected videos of recent actions. Two Umbrellas, Iceland (2008) shows Signer in an open landscape battling the wind as he attempts to hook two umbrellas together by the handle. Off they go, rolling away toward a distant shoreline, their conjoined handles forming a festive “S.” In Office Chair (2010), Signer places the titular object in a fast-running brook whose current sets it spinning. The artist appears in both those videos, but in Shirt (2010) he is absent. We sense him, though, in the man’s white shirt that, suspended from a long rope rigged up along a tall wooded slope, comes hurtling toward us and (in the single cut between two takes) on down the hill, flapping wildly like some mad woodland spirit. The videos are pristine and memorable, the timing short and sweet.
CURRENTLY ON VIEW “Four Rooms, One Artist” at the Swiss Institute, through Nov. 12.
Photo (left) View of Roman Signer’s Shirt, 2010 (left), and Two Umbrellas, Iceland, 2008 (right), videos.
Photo (right) View of the film installation Cinema, 2010. Both at the Swiss Institute.