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Walking on Ice: An Interview with Roman Signer

Punkt (production still), 2006, video, 1 min 40 sec. Photo: Aleksandra Signer
Punkt (production still), 2006, video, 1 min 40 sec. Photo: Aleksandra Signer. Courtesy: Galerie Martin Janda, Vienna

‘I wasn’t looking for risk, but I obviously needed the risk. There is a certain tension that exists with the risk.’

When I spoke to Roman Signer, he was on vacation in Poland, a place he regularly visits from his home in Switzerland. He called while in his hotel room, accompanied by his wife, Aleksandra, and his daughter, Barbara, who translated between English and Swiss-German, as she often does for her father’s interviews. Barbara is also an artist, and I met her four years earlier while staying at Andrea Zittel’s Wagon Station Encampment, a kind of artist residency in the California desert. The following year, we began to collaborate on videos for a musical project, and I began to learn about her father’s art. I grew fascinated by his singular approach, which draws its inspiration from physics and seems to have few connections to contemporary art movements, a point that Signer himself emphasised several times during our talk.

His work most often resembles the activities of a young amateur scientist: simple experiments with no practical utility. Many of these employ rockets, balloons, fans, barrels, cars, boots, umbrellas, kayaks and bicycles. Boot Fountain (2010), for example, uses water pressure to swing a boot into perpetual, Ferris-wheel circles and Office Chair (2009) seats Signer in a plain rolling chair, propelling him forward with ignited rockets. In this work, the art lies not in the fetishizing of the objects, but in their activation.

Signer particularly enjoys sending simple things – a small house, table or chair – airborne, casting them briefly against a stark blue sky. He treats explosions like ephemeral sculptures, and documents them as if they were tests with some larger, ongoing purpose. For exhibitions, he shows various media: photographs and films of these actions, and installations of his objects, but his attention remains always focused on the underlying movement of energy. While all artists work, in some form, with the transference of energy, Signer does so explicitly.

Personally, my first reaction to his work is often laughter. Signer’s art isn’t a joke, but it expresses the absurd futility of human activity with the concision of a good punchline. Even now, at eighty-one, he seems to maintain an open, childlike curiosity to his environment and proclivities.

Schweben, 1995, b/w photograph, 60 x 40 cm. Courtesy: Galerie Martin Janda, Vienna

Nothing to do with my work

Ross Simonini Have the two of you ever collaborated?

Barbara Signer We’ve never worked together directly. I help translate, or organise, or accompany him on his travels. So in that way, we work together.

Roman Signer She’s my secretary.

Barbara I wouldn’t call myself that. It’s an assistant’s job. It’s irregular. It’s organic. If I have a lot of my own work, I do less with him. I just try to help.

Ross How long have you been doing this?

Barbara Since I was twenty. Almost 15 years. It started after high school. Aleksandra, my mother, also works for Roman.

Ross Is the work a part of your family life?

Barbara Yes. The studio is in the basement. The meeting room is the living room, and Roman’s office is in his bedroom. So there’s no separation.

Ross Were you engaged with the art when you were young?

Barbara I went to the studio to play. Or with my friends. It was very normal to have art around.

Ross Roman, can you describe your studio?

Roman It’s a big space about five metres high. I built it four years ago.

Ross Do you do your thinking in the studio?

Roman No, usually in my office and bedroom or the bathtub. Or when I read.

Ross What are you reading?

Roman I read many things. I am currently reading a book on Venice by a Dutch writer named Cees Nooteboom. I also like to read the Russian writers, like Nabokov and Pasternak. I have a very large library. Books on nature, travel, technical books, art, volcanoes, airplanes. But it’s not a work library. It’s a pleasure library. And there is no order. If I look for something, I cannot find it. Sometimes I go through the library and discover something I didn’t know I had, and I take it up to the bedroom and read it. Collecting books is a passion. An addiction.

Ross Do you write?

Roman Only if I have to. Just short and simple description. A few sentences.

Ross What about your monographs and the books you make documenting the actions – do you see these as part of the art?

Roman Yes. This is a big part of my work. I often spend a large amount of my time designing books we are working on. They are the primary documentation. They are archives. Sometimes I have to look up things in the book myself, to learn about my own history.

Ross When you look back in this way, are you satisfied with your life as an artist?

Roman I am happy to have changed my job, even if it was quite late. I would have been unhappy as a technical draughtsman for architecture. I worked in that field for ten years. After that I went to art school.

Ross At what age?

Roman At twenty-seven, when I stopped working as a draughtsman. I had to work as a draughtsman again for a few years to make money. I didn’t really start to do art until I was thirty-two.

Aleksandra Signer The first drawings are from 1969.

Roman I was never a young artist. My first show was at thirty-five.

Ross He gets to watch you be a young artist.

Barbara I feel like a young artist, but I don’t know if I am anymore.

Ross Did you discuss art with your father as a child?

Barbara Not so much. But I watched him and I always wanted the freedom. It took me a long time to realise that my father was an artist, that he was doing something different from other people. They took me to exhibitions and openings, but they didn’t try to teach me.

Ross You both work with film. Do you watch films together?

Roman We both like the cinema. I go regularly. The last film we saw together was Bergman’s Wild Strawberries [1957].

Roman Signer in 2009. Photo: Michael Bodenmann. Courtesy: Galerie Martin Janda, Vienna

Leeches on the toe

Ross Do you think about work while on vacation?

Roman I used to make work in the 70s and  80s on vacation. Now it’s a retreat from art.

Ross The 70s would have been before Barbara was born. How did having a family change the work?

Roman In the year she was born, 1982, I made a large amount of work. I think it was because I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to make work after she was born. Or maybe it was just a very productive year. Either way, it was an exceptional time.

Ross Was the work of better quality?

Roman It was not different from before or after.

Ross Did you, in fact, make less work after Barbara was born?

Roman A little less than 1982, but still enough. We didn’t have a lot of money in the 80s, so I was drawing a lot, rather than realising projects.

Ross In general, do you think the quality of your work has fluctuated throughout your career?

Roman I haven’t become worse or better. I produce less in general now, because of my health. But it’s not worse work. Nowadays it’s big exhibitions. Before, it was smaller works. I had more time. Artists should not do too many exhibitions. Artists need time to develop.

Ross Your work is often about the body and features your own body. How has your body’s ageing affected the work?

Roman I used to do a lot of actions where I was physical: running and jumping. I can’t do this anymore. I had to stop that kind of work.

Ross Did you take less risks with your body once you had a daughter?

Roman Not really. I did the most dangerous things after she was born. But I stopped doing whitewater kayaking after a friend of mine died kayaking in 1981.

Ross What were the most dangerous works you’ve made?

Roman In one work [Sinking in Ice, 1985] I walked onto the ice until it broke and I fell into the water and had to get out. Some works don’t look dangerous but are. I once stood inside two barrels stacked on top of each other and then they were covered with a mound of gravel [Action in a Gravel Quarry, 1997]. If I was inside for too long, I could have gone unconscious from a lack of oxygen and too much carbon dioxide. But I didn’t.

Ross Do you ever have doctors on hand? Or assistants?

Roman No doctors. Just an assistant. My brother is a doctor. He is retired now, though.

Ross Is risk-taking important to the work?

Roman I wasn’t looking for risk, but I obviously needed the risk. There is a certain tension that exists with the risk.

Ross Did you ever get hurt?

Roman With fire, yes. I got burnt on the hands and legs and face. But everyday life is much more dangerous. A few years ago, in the middle of the night, I was walking in the dark and banged my toe on the bedpost. I’ve had problems with that toe for years.

Ross A dark house is a dangerous place.

Roman I just wanted to go to the bathroom but I didn’t want to wake up Aleksandra, who was sleeping. I was walking very fast because it was cold and I banged it. My doctor said I have to have an operation. He has to make the toe stiff.

Barbara I think it’s not a very good idea.

Roman The pain is getting worse and worse. It’s going up, into the hips.

Barbara He’s walking in a strange way now.

Ross The same thing happened to my father, actually.

Roman Beds have to be constructed in a different way. The leg of the bed should be inside, not in the corner.

Aleksandra There are beds like this!

Roman Maybe I will make a sculpture about this.

Aleksandra I hear that turmeric is very good for these things.

Roman Some doctors will put leeches on the toe. I have considered this.

Watching rivers

Ross Are you still athletic, despite the toe?

Roman No. I’d like to hike more. Nature is a very big inspiration. Nature is still important to the work, but I used to be able to move more. When you hike, you can think more.

Ross What’s the nature like where you live?

Roman It’s a small town. You can walk 15 minutes and be in nature. Forest, mountains, lakes, rivers. I was born in Appenzell, which has a very beautiful landscape. There is a place there called ‘The End of the World’, near Kurhaus Weissbad, that is my outdoor studio. It’s a hotel and resort but I have printed permission to go there and work. I can show the police the piece  of paper, if needed. There is a small road that goes into the back of the resort and into nature. The police cannot go there.

Ross Is the work separate from nature?

Roman I use the term nature-as-studio. I am not a Land artist. I never leave anything in nature. No traces. What remains are photographs, videos, objects.

Ross Why place the work outdoors rather than indoors?

Roman It’s just practical. There are many things I cannot do in the studio. I can’t light rockets and explosives. Only small ones. I can’t use drones indoors.

Ross But the work isn’t about nature?

Roman It can be. Sometimes I need the wind, the snow, the rain, the sun for the piece to work. It’s not only about space. I like to work with the river, the velocity of it. This is more like the interaction of it. I love to watch rivers.

Ross Is nature purely material for you?

Roman I see nature as energy.

Ross Would you say that energy is your primary material?

Roman Yes, speed, movement. But some works are about something that might happen.

Ross Potential energy.

Roman But I am not a kinetic artist. And I also use motors, fans, water pumps. Not just the wind.

Ross Do you have a definition for energy?

Roman A force that can move something. Push it. Lift it. Every movement is energy.

Ross Albert Einstein defined the magic of quantum entanglement as ‘spooky action at a distance’. Do you see your work as magic?

Roman There are some strange things. When you stretch a rubber band and you leave it for ten years, it no longer has its elasticity. Where does the elasticity go? Because energy never goes away.

Ross Do you trust science?

Roman I understand too little to distrust it. I have an emotional approach to science. People think that I calculate the results of my experiments, but it’s more intuitive. It’s more physical than scientific.

Ross Will you ever retire from making art?

Roman I have no programme. I don’t intend to stop at any age. I will make art as long as I am healthy and I enjoy it.

A solo show by Roman Signer is on view at Galerie Martin Janda, Vienna, through 18 April.

Ross Simonini is an artist, writer and musician living in New York and California.

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