I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee
Discover MFA Programs in Art and Writing
Roman Signer has always lived and worked in St. Gallen, in eastern Switzerland. I visited him at his studio recently, where he showed me how sand trickles down from the ceiling onto a violin suspended below and makes music in the process. One could say that while sand is the performer of the piece, Signer is the producer of the musical performance. Signer is known as an explosion artist and a maker of ephemeral sculptures. He is neither an intellectual, nor a craftsman, nor a blaster. He is not an action artist, a clown, or a shaman either. Signer has no use for theory: his art is not conceptual, and nor is it minimalist or a land art. To put it simply, Signer just thinks a lot. He thinks for himself and for those beyond; so that the world may lose its ordinariness and reveal itself to us in its splendor.
Signer makes objects very close to our lives, like tables or chairs, relate to earth, wind, fire, and water in unexpected ways. What is true for chemistry—from the combination of basic elements something completely new emerges—is also true for Signer’s artworks. Having turned 70 last May, Signer is thought by many to be Switzerland’s most important artist. In his Swiss-German accent, his answer to that would be a laconic yes, a brief monosyllabic answer that consecrates the transient as the most fertile ground for art.
Armin Senser We are going to record the interview with two recorders.
Roman Signer Redundancy. There’s redundant ignition as well: I’ve used two ignition systems at times, so if one fails, the whole thing will still go off.
AS Weren’t you once a technical draftsman? Do you remember how much money you made then?
RS In 1969 I worked in the Engadin and made 600 Swiss francs a month. The boss, he was the stingy type. As an intern I made even less, 60 francs. Around 1958 there was a Corbusier exhibit at the Kunsthaus in Zürich. At the time, a ticket to Zürich cost 20 francs. I could not afford the ticket. I asked at the office; my boss wouldn’t advance me anything. It would’ve been important for me to see the architecture, but I wasn’t able to go. When I tell this to my daughter today, she doesn’t believe me.
AS Why didn’t you stick with architecture?
RS It’s not creative enough. I went to see a job counselor. It was at the Psycho-Technical Institute Helfenberg in St. Gallen. Terrible. Gentlemen in white coats, like in a concentration camp. The counselor wrote, “Decorative tendencies seem to be present.” And then he tested my reaction with an apparatus and a metal pen. I went crazy. Threw the whole thing down. The apparatus broke. The session was over. My father had to talk to the counselor. I heard everything. He screamed, “Your son is a maladjusted oaf, you have to beat him every day.” But my father was not primitive.
I didn’t want to become a technical draftsman. I thought, Radio, that’s magical. I took an internship in St. Gallen to get a glimpse. And after two months I was gone again. I burned a tape recorder to cinders. It was the first tape recorder you could get in Switzerland, a Grundig. I plugged it in the wrong way. “Was that you?” asked the boss. “Yes!” “You idiot. Out! I don’t want to see you any more.”
AS Wasn’t that lucky?
RS I was glad. Went outside and had to laugh. I was free. But my family said: “We feel ashamed because of you. The whole village will laugh at us.” Then my father took me out for a hike in the mountains. He stomped ahead without a word. A thunderstorm came. Suddenly my father turned around and said, “What will become of you?” I cried and said I didn’t know. Then we went to see a job counselor once more, in Lucerne. Mr. Koch. He had invented a tree test. One just had to draw a tree—he could tell what kind of talent you had. Koch said that I should take an internship in technical drawing, but that I would probably end up as an artist.
AS Did he really say you would become an artist?
RS Yes. I liked that, and it shocked me a bit. Still, I worked at the drawing board for ten years. I started in Zürich, then went to Samaden, then back to Zürich. Went back to St. Gallen, then Geneva, then France. And at that point I thought, It can’t go on like this. I wanted to attend the Arts and Crafts School to take the basic course and learn how to draw better. But the will has its own dynamics: I could not return to drawing.
AS And where did you take the basic course?
RS In Zürich. But then I ran out of money. My parents had no money. And grants didn’t exist. So I worked again as a technical draftsman, put some money on the side and went to the Lucerne School of Design, where I was for two and a half years. Then once again I ran out of money. I heard that one could sign up for an exchange program with Poland, so I did. I was still working in Zürich when a telegram arrived. That was in November of 1971. I was in Warsaw for one year. I had no worries then, not financial ones, in any case. The Poles paid. The program still exists.
AS You were also a teacher, a professor at an arts academy.
RS I taught at the School for Design in Lucerne for 21 years.
AS Did you live in Lucerne then?
RS No. I only taught once a week. I’d commute from St. Gallen to Lucerne and returned in the evening. I could bear this until 1995, until I realized I was suffering from it.
AS Do you believe that an arts education is necessary?
RS It depends. I would’ve liked to attend an academy, but I couldn’t afford it. I would’ve liked to go to Düsseldorf or Hamburg for three or four years, but they had no space for me at the academies there.
In 1995 I resigned as professor and was ready to see what would happen. Only in 1997 was I better off. Then I participated in the sculpture exhibition in Münster and the gallery Hauser & Wirth in Zürich became interested in me. I’ve been better off since.
AS Is tradition important to you?
RS You’ve got to be interested in it.
AS Does one have to see what others are doing? Did you like looking at exhibitions?
RS I saw a lot as a student. That’s the real education. I had an incredible desire to catch up on things. In school I had learned nothing about art. I did it all myself, because I was interested.
AS Which artists from that time come to mind?
RS It is very dangerous to mention names. Then one always assumes that I’m a fan of theirs, that I’m an imitator.
AS But perhaps there was a teacher?
RS I cannot say I had a teacher. I value Giacometti, Robert Morris, Bruce Nauman, of course. I didn’t know Giacometti personally. If I had said Beuys, one might take me for a Beuys disciple. I am far from being that; I have nothing to do with Beuys, though he and the others are important figures. Literature is also part of an art education, and philosophy … Paul Virilio, for example. I was drawn to his book on the Atlantic Wall, the bunkers the Nazis built along the French coastline. The bunkers are functional, but also highly aesthetic. Also cinema and music… . The whole intellectual climate—one lives in a specific intellectual environment.
AS Has someone influenced you?
RS I didn’t have that. Perhaps that was my luck: the luck not to have been with Beuys. The Beuys model was overpowering; it was bad for some people.
AS So you didn’t experience a rebellion against certain art movements?
RS No. I was with Anton Egloff in Lucerne. A great class, his sculpture class. It doesn’t exist any more. I had found a great teacher, but what he did was very different from what interested me. Switzerland did have some interesting artists: Dieter Roth, for example. But nobody served me as a model. After all, I don’t come from painting. I was more interested in America then, in land art, even though I never practiced land art. I was also interested in performance artists and filmmakers.
AS Is there a moment, a trigger, so to speak, for the kind of art you make?
RS I’m interested in too many things. And there isn’t any “ism” I obey.
AS But there is play. Schiller says, “A human being is only human at play.” Do you relate to that?
RS I like that very much. I’m a gambler. Not at the chessboard, I’m an elementary gambler.
AS Is the artist a gambler?
AS In a way, this is the opposite of Beuys’s claim that everybody is an artist.
RS Beuys was always too serious for me. Always that theory, that lecturing. He did individual pieces of genius. But the theory …
AS Of course, Beuys’s comments did provoke; art provokes. In light of his involvement in World War II, his I Like America and America Likes Me action was certainly an impudence.
RS Beuys had been a pilot of the German air force during World War II. He didn’t have to become a pilot. He was trained in the former Breslau and apparently dropped bombs with the Stukas.
AS Is laziness important to you as a source of inspiration? Duchamp wanted to build the church of laziness.
RS I’m not lazy in my thinking, but in making things. I could always do more. There are too many artists making things like crazy. Take Eliasson, for instance: he has 49 collaborators and 50 projects per year. That’s insanity. One cannot have that many ideas. I wouldn’t want to have so many people behind my back. I can afford to do nothing. If I had an assistant, he’d ask, “Mr. Signer, what can we do today?” “I don’t know,” I’d have to say.
AS Art is not an obligation.
RS Since art is a game, I have no use for assistants.
AS What about curiosity?
RS Curiosity is already a sign of intelligence. Cows are not stupid at all. They view the landscape meditatively when they take their siesta.
AS One could do something with cows, with their exhaust fumes, for example.
RS No. I don’t want my art to be didactic. There is actually nothing to be learned from me. Beuys always lifted his didactic finger.
AS Are you sure there is nothing one can learn from you?
RS Learn to play more.
AS And the objects you play with—there aren’t that many—do they have a special meaning for you?
RS Without love for them I couldn’t do anything with them. I cannot work with all objects; I need to have a relationship to them. I’m pretty restrictive that way. Today there are many artists engaged in tremendous material battles, using everything one possibly can. That’s not my way.
AS In 1969 Harald Szeemann curated the exhibition When Attitudes Become Form: Live in Your Head. The phrase in your case would be, “when technology becomes form.”
RS Technology is not enough. I saw that exhibition. In school with Egloff, always on Fridays, there was a half circle of chairs and a bottle of wine. He brought in catalogues and books, and he talked. This half-circle became important to me. He took us to Bern to see Szeemann’s exhibition.
AS What impressed you about the exhibition?
RS I wasn’t looking for ideas. I had enough of those in my own head. I simply saw that what I did could possibly become art.
AS A kind of liberation, an opening?
RS Yes, it was a kind of an opening. Everything was so narrow in Lucerne. Something opened for me at that exhibition. I thought, This language is possible. I’m no longer mute. I can say something. Art is a language, and for me, technology is something elemental. I work with simple materials. I can strive for poetry with these materials. Technology itself is not that important. I use video, but I’m not a video artist. You, Armin, as a poet, connect words to form sentences, while I connect materials to articulate a statement.
As for my materials, there is aluminum, steel, rubber, sand, rockets, wind, gun powder, mud, brass, etcetera. I connect them with each other: sand can marry a rocket, for example. The connection is not intellectual; it comes out of my feelings. I like to try out these connections, but there is nothing systematic at all about my process. When I work with water for certain periods, though then something else comes along.
AS Much of your work takes place outside, in nature. Is nature an extended studio for you?
RS Yes, though not in the sense of land art. Land art always wanted to leave something behind: a ditch, a monument, a displaced rock. I use nature as my studio, but when I’m done, I clean up and go home again.
AS The fuse you use is also part of technology. You breathe life into technology; you animate science and skill.
RS Yes. Technology is part of techne, of skill. But art that is simply skill is nonsense. My art comes from the love for certain people. I try to give a soul to the material. Art does not come from ability, from how well one has executed something. What you make has to work, though, that’s obvious. When I use safety fuses, I try to do things perfectly. I don’t make them myself, though. That’d be nonsense! I buy them, use them, rebuild them, and give them a soul. That’s my task.
AS Where does the safety fuse come from?
RS William Bickford, an Englishman, invented the safety fuse with jute and asphalt in order to prevent mining accidents. It burns incredibly slowly. Three feet will burn in two and a half minutes. It also burns under water. I once laid a fuse between the Appenzell and St. Gallen. When it rained, the fuse burned faster. Once you’ve ignited the fuse, you have to feed it again and again, like an animal. People came to watch. “Very well,” they said, “we are now leaving for the Bahamas for two weeks and we’ll show up again when we return.” We had not gone much further when they came back all tanned from the Bahamas. Not in my entire life did I have that much time! The month the fuse took to burn was so long. Time is elastic: individual, experienced time, not chronometric time.
AS A lot of your works are long-lived and elastic, although they take place in a brief span of time.
RS Yes. But even those brief pieces can be slowed down. That also happens. If you could record an explosion with a high-speed camera that takes one thousand images per second, for example, you’d see a thousand pictures. If you hung them up you’d see a thousand different sculptural forms. Crazy! The form changes constantly. So much is happening. So much happens in a thousandth of a second. Yet the explosion is the opposite: there’s a bang, and then it’s done.
AS In this way, the micro resembles the macro—the universe.
RS The planets’ movements relate to the movements of neutrons and electrons. But I don’t understand enough of that. I only think to myself, An incredible amount happens in one second.
AS Do you have any expectations when you’re working on something?
RS Never, but I imagine certain scenarios. The ideal-case scenario is the one I had imagined: for instance, there’s a puff of smoke and a helicopter disappears into it and then emerges again. But when I do an action it might turn out completely different. That’s the adventure. I’m actually looking for small adventures in art. Otherwise art gets boring.
AS Let’s take the arrangement of balls you created for the 1999 Venice Biennale. The balls were blown up, and were bound to fall from the ceiling onto a pile of clay. A scientist could’ve predicted when and where the balls would fall. What actually happened were small deviations and irregularities. You undermine expectation, even scientific ones.
RS Yes. That’s life. One of the 117 balls fell after a delay. Did you see that on film? It took a hundredth of a second. I had done an experiment with this very ball the evening before. I wanted to see how it would fall into the clay. Afterward a worker hung up the ball slightly differently. Because of that it fell down a fraction of a second later.
AS The perfect is the real, as opposed to the ideal—it’s what actually happens.
RS Perfection has no role in this at all. In a class of 117 students, there will always be one who comes late.
AS The event in Venice, the document of a deviation, demonstrates the unpredictability of nature—it poses a theory of nature.
RS Nature thrives on those deviations. Only in mathematics everything works perfectly. But the higher the math, the more it becomes art, credos.
AS Do you ever make calculations?
RS I can only perform very primitive weight calculations. I work intuitively. I created a piece where a little suitcase is attached to a motor, and it turns around in circles. But how does the little suitcase fly up? Does it stay upright? Once I dropped a concrete-filled suitcase from a helicopter and saw how it moved, so I had an idea.
AS You’re not always present in your own works. Do you like to play a part?
RS Yes. I like to go into nature and try something out. That cannot be called work, it’s a pleasure.
AS You practically leave no traces. In the beginning, you left your footprints behind. Then you disappeared completely, so to speak.
RS Occasionally there is a trace of me, like a patch of burnt grass.
AS Which will eventually grow out. You’re very discreet. Art for you is discretion, a form of silence, it’s as if you were never there.
RS It’d take a criminologist, a Sherlock Holmes with his magnifying glass, to find me.
AS You are familiar with Buñuel’s surreal films. Your art is also rather surreal. Different worlds mingle, or, as you say, they marry.
RS We were once at a ski jump in Poland, for example. We rode a car, a Piaggio, down the jump—it flew through the air! Everybody thought it would somersault, but it flew through the air and landed intact. Before going in the ski jump we’d heard that a priest was blessing automobiles. We asked him to bless our car and he came over with two altar boys and some holy water. He glued a St. Christopher to the steering wheel, and said that the saint “wished me an accident-free ride.” He didn’t know what we were up to …
AS The surreal morphs into a fairy tale. But there’s also an adventure hero: Don Quixote, fighting the windmills.
RS I wouldn’t just fight against windmills.
AS But do you expose yourself to danger like a hero?
RS I certainly have to give thought to how to face those dangers: whether I need special equipment or not, etcetera. The hero I’d be is not brave, but understated instead. He goes out into the world and deals with what comes up spontaneously. He gets lucky. Think of the Grimms’s didactic play Hans in Luck, for example. I have a certain amount of experience with windmills. From a distance they look romantic, but they have an uncanny power. There was one in Holland that grinds with a stone: it was a paintmill. Two hundred years ago there used to be a thousand windmills. One has to picture that—the roar. I wanted to do something there. We attached a brush to the blades for it to paint a canvas. The owners were against it. We also mounted a camera and tossed up a soccer ball. “Leave now. Get lost,” they said. They’d had enough.
AS When you are a part of your art, is having the experience your motivation?
RS Not at the artistic level. The ideas do come from my private life, always.
AS As in your kayak piece? When you maneuver your kayak on the street, instead of in the water, into another world, does this idea originate in life, in your biography?
RS I would often go on white-water trips with my colleagues. I stopped in 1981, when a colleague had a fatal accident. I couldn’t enjoy white-water river trips after that, so I brought the kayak over into art. I wouldn’t have been able to do that before. Do you understand? When my sports equipment was still in use, I wouldn’t have been able to make art with it, psychologically. It had to be displaced, as if into another world. Only then am I free to work with it.
AS So the biographical is part of your work?
RS One’s childhood experiences and adventures are important for every artist. That’s what you feed on. Everything is there already. One only gives it shape.
AS And the shape of your art needs documentation. Someone has to document your interventions. They require at least two people.
RS I used to do the photography myself a lot. I’d also film myself in Super 8. Now my wife films with video.
AS When you fail, what happens then?
RS If an attempt fails, I have to repeat the effort.
AS You once said that you create inexplicable things. Do you still think that?
RS They must be possible to explain in part; after all, I don’t mobilize ghosts.
AS The beauty of your work lies in its simplicity.
RS The process is simple. The materials are simple. But by inexplicable, I mean something very different. I mean that it’s difficult to prove that what I make is art.
AS Could it be, like with Dante’s Divine Comedy, that you communicate something before one understands you?
RS Yes. If I like a book, I read it two or three times.
AS When something explodes in your work, it explodes in my head practically at the same time. My thoughts explode—fireworks of relationships and associations go off in my mind …
RS That’s one way to think about my work. A lot of nonsense has been written about me. Swiss radio wanted to do a broadcast with me, but I didn’t have time. In this broadcast they said, “Roman Signer has pulverized sculpture.” Pulverized. What did I pulverize? They put words I never said in my mouth.
AS Book critics will even say that writers are insane.
RS When someone says you’re crazy, that’s a compliment.
AS Are you satisfied with the timing of your success?
RS It came late for me. In the beginning it was very difficult: I hardly made any money, but my wife never complained. Today I’m doing relatively well.
AS Does it annoy you that success came late?
RS That’s how it was. I’ve worked in eastern Switzerland and didn’t make it abroad. I once wanted to show in Zürich. Here in eastern Switzerland that meant something already: Zürich.
An exhibition there meant success.
AS Is St. Gallen too provincial for you?
RS Sure, I would’ve liked to go out into the world. But I just didn’t make it any further than St. Gallen. It’s actually ideal: we have water, forest, hills, mountains, houses. Everything! I suffered a lot when my friend Bernhard Tagwerker said, “Roman, I’m going to move to New York.” I was totally envious. That’s something: New York! I visited him once—I spent three weeks in New York. I had a culture shock. Back with my parents in the Appenzell, I looked out of the window at 9:00 PM: not a soul. All those people In New York were uncanny; they shocked me.
AS Are you pleased with your reception in general?
RS Yes. In Germany they have Kunstforum, this thick magazine. They did something about sculpture and said they didn’t believe that I had done anything interesting in the ’70s and ’80s, otherwise they would have known about it. I did exist, but only here in St. Gallen.
AS Is there an artwork you remember particularly well?
RS No, I consider all of them my children. They all have the same value.
AS Do you look at them occasionally?
RS Yes. I like to look at them. There are, of course, important works that took a lot of time to make. The one with the fuse to St. Gallen … at the other extreme would be my Action with Sheets of Paper for Documenta 8. I arranged 350 stacks of paper, each with 1,000 sheets. I had them blow up in the air so that they’d form a fleeting paper wall. The action was brief, but it took an insane amount of preparation. Three months! People always think that I go to the blaster and say, “Do this for me.” No. I always conduct detailed trials, by myself.
AS Do you have your own blast license?
RS I do. There is an A, a B, and a C license. I have a B. I’m the B-man. I’m allowed to detonate with all materials but I’m not permitted to blow up buildings. I have the authority to detonate, but I’m not a blaster. I had to take a course. An exam. Then I received an official permit.
Translated from the German by Claudia Steinberg.
Originally published in
Featuring interviews with Claire Fontaine, Nayland Blake and Rachel Harrison, Roman Signer and Armin Senser, John Giorno, Kelly Reichardt and Gus Van Sant, Alan Vega and Matt McAuley and Brain McPeck, Richard Maxwell and John Kelsey, Chris Lipomi and Kathryn Andrews, and Peter Cole.
I believe that each of us is given one sentence at birth, and we spend the rest of our life trying to read that sentence and make sense of it.
Li Young Lee