The Smell of Gunpowder: A visit with Roman Signer
August 25, 2007 St. Gallen, Switzerland: I went to visit the Swiss artist Roman Signer this morning at his house in St. Gallen; this was an appointment that was switched around and delayed through most of the summer. He is from Appenzell, on the other side of the mountain, and has now lived here for many years. He is about seventy, but comes off as a younger man. He is known, world-renowned at this point, as a sculptor who performs actions involving explosions, or other natural forces, like surges of water or air, or combustion. He also uses simple mechanical devices and tools, or recreational equipment in new, odd ways. I read that he had a job early in life in a pressure-cooker factory, when one gets to know the work this fact becomes more and more amusing.
Many of the actions, such as a piece where he sits in a kayak and is towed by a car on a dry road as the bottom of the kayak is scraped away, are recorded in short 8mm films. Or there are photographic series, or objects. Since his youth he has been interested in explosions. I asked him if he liked the smell of gunpowder, he said yes, and I mentioned the allure of the smell when I first experienced it as a small boy, he said, “Yes, elemental.” That was a word he liked to use in relation to his work. He took me to his workroom, which was in a large building attached behind his larger, bürgermeister-like house. He showed me a room full of sculptures, and said, “Well. This is all I have, it’s not very much, and much the work is out in exhibitions…”
In one corner of the long, low-ceilinged space was a collapsible mountain-climbers tent that was in tatters from an explosion. This is a “Ruin” of an action, he explained. I told him that it made me think of the Romantic trope of the ruin in the landscape, and how being that a lot of his work takes place out of doors, it made oblique references to the Romantic tradition. There was something of a language barrier, and he said, “No. I am not a “land” artist, I just use the land as my workroom sometimes.” There was a beautiful piece on the floor with a long iron pipe that had triangular legs welded on it, that was used, when filled with gunpowder, to shoot a black umbrella through a black briefcase, which was placed in front of the pipe.
Then he would say, ‘Well, that’s all” and then would take me to another part of the building and show me something else. One windowless room had a bucket full of sand suspended over an umbrella that would spin and sift the sand evenly around its perimeter. Nearby, was an old-fashioned weight reduction machine with a belt one places around one’s waist. He used the machine in an action where he put the belt on and as the machine moved his hips he would try to hit a can placed across the room with a pistol. There were circles with numbers highlighting the bullet holes on either side of the bright metal can.
In another storeroom, near a workroom with a long table filled neatly placed tools, Signer showed me a deep freeze refrigerator, like the bottom half of a full-sized one. He tells me a story about when a few years ago he heard that a huge snowfall was coming. He brought the freezer outside, and lifted the lid and it snowed into the freezer. With the lid lifted, one peers down and sees the drifts of snow still preserved. He said that it was in a museum exhibition, a large refrigerator truck came to get the piece, that the temperature inside was -20 Centigrade, and it was quickly taken from the truck and plugged in to the gallery space. Then he said that the museum wanted to insure the sculpture for 20,000 Swiss francs, and Signer said, “That was very clever, but it cannot be replaced, it’s just snow.”
He showed me some of his catalogues that he had bound with metal bands and then placed an explosion cap inside. The eruption on the surface of the book, he said, was like a volcano. I asked him if he liked visiting volcanoes, and he named some that he had, including Stromboli and a number of others, including one in Japan. Then I asked him if he had read Susan Sontag’s novel, the “Volcano Lover” and we talked about what a good book it was and how surprising that it came from her.
Then he took me on the concrete deck above the studio that served as a large patio for the residential part of the house and showed me his “participant” piece, where two hoses filled with water were connected to a pair of rubber boots mounted on a metal stand. Signer stood on the two hoses about 10 feet away from the boots and lifted his feet on and off of the two hoses, causing the boots to swing back and forth in a walking motion. Long spurts of water came from the heels of the boots, propelling them forward. I was admiring the piece as I was also looking over at the cab of a ski lift set nearby a large boulder, and looked over to the buildings across the way that formed a kind of tall amphitheatre that looked onto his patio.
As he walked me downstairs, he stopped and said ‘Oh, I must show you where I keep my explosives.” And he opened a door and I looked at a five-foot high pea green safe with a no smoking sticker on it. As we went out onto the street there was a black Jaguar parked in front of the entrance. We talked a few more minutes. I mentioned something about not having the language and missing a lot of middle-European irony and he said, “It’s subtle.” Then, “This is not my car, I only have a bicycle; and I have one of those three-wheeled cars from Italy, do you know them?”