Early life and career
Born in Appenzell, Switzerland, Signer started his career as an artist later in life at the age of 28, after working as an architect’s draughtsman, a radio engineer apprentice, and a short stint in a pressure cooker factory. He holds degrees from arts institutions in Switzerland and Poland. He studied at the Schule für Gestaltung in Zurich and Lucerne between 1966 and 1971. He studied at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw, Poland from 1971-1972.
Signer's work has grown out of, and has affinities with both land art and performance art, but they are not typically representative of either category. It is often being described as following the tradition of the Swiss engineer-artist, such as Jean Tinguely and Peter Fischli & David Weiss.
Signer’s "action sculptures" involve setting up, carrying out, and recording "experiments" or events that bear aesthetic results. Day-to-day objects such as umbrellas, tables, boots, containers, hats and bicycles are part of Signer’s working vocabulary. Following carefully planned and strictly executed and documented procedures, the artist enacts and records such acts as explosions, collisions, and the projection of objects through space. Signer advocates ‘controlled destruction, not destruction for its own sake’. Action Kurhaus Weissbad (1992) saw chairs catapulted out of a hotel’s windows; Table (1994) launched a table into the sea on four buckets; Kayak (2000) featured the artist being towed down a road in a canoe. In documenta 8 (1987), he catapulted thousands of sheets of paper into the air to create an ephemeral wall in the room for a brief, but all the more intense moment. As the Swiss representative at the Venice Biennale in 1999, he made 117 steel balls fall from the ceiling on to lumps of clay lying on the ground. Many of his happenings are not for public viewing, and are only documented in photos and film. Video works like Stiefel mit Rakete (Boot with Rocket) are integral to Signer’s performances, capturing the original setup of materials that self-destruct in the process of creating an emotionally and visually compelling event.
Signer gives a humorous twist to the concept of cause and effect and to the traditional scientific method of experimentation and discovery, taking on the self-evidence of scientific logic as an artistic challenge. As well as working in his studio, which he calls his lab, Signer often takes off to the Swiss mountains to conduct larger experiments. A recent example of his installation work was "Accident as sculpture" (Unfall als Skulptur)(2008) in which Signer had a three-wheeled delivery car, loaded with water barrels, roll down an 11 m high ramp and up the other side. At the apex, the vehicle overturned and crashed to the ground. The resulting chaotic arrangement constituted the exhibition at de:Kunstraum Dornbirn. Another example, the video 56 Small Helicopters (56 Kleine Helikopter) (2008) shows a squadron of 56 remote-controlled toy helicopters as they rise into the air, collide with each other, carom off the ceiling and walls, and finally die in mechanical spasms on the floor.
In 2011, Signer showed Restenfilme or film leftovers, always presented in a darkened room furnished with several rows of wooden chairs, one of which rocks unassisted on its back legs. The projection gathers actions, which Signer never constituted as full artworks, as well as shots of locations that were possible staging grounds for potential works.
A collaborative film from 1996 with director Peter Liechti titled "Signer's Koffer" (English: "Signer's Suitcase") documents a series of his "action sculptures" along with interviews of Roman Signer and other characters encountered during his travels performing the work.
Signer's work has been shown at galleries and museums in Europe, North America and Asia over the last thirty years. It was featured in 37th Venice Biennale (1976), documenta 8, Kassel (1987), and Skulptur Projekte Münster (1997)
In 2016 the Kunstmuseum Basel acquired 205 films of Roman Signer in Super 8 format. These films are among the most important works that make Signer's early performative work accessible. From April 1, 2017, 24 films from this collection will be presented to the public on 12 screens connecting the main building and the new building. The films shown were all produced between 1975 and 1989 and show the partial spectacular actions for which the artist has become known. No movie is longer than three minutes. Without sound, they show themes that are drawn by Signer's entire oeuvre: explosions and poetic moments, nature and its elements, staging and coincidence. Not infrequently the artist himself appears in it. They are sculptures on time, which sometimes offer a surprise effect and often reveal a humorous, almost slapsticky side.
Selected solo shows
- 2012 Kunsthalle Mainz
- 2009 Kunsthaus Zug, Roman Signer - Werke 1975-2007
- 2009 Hamburger Kunsthalle, Roman Signer - Projektionen. Filme und Videos 1975 - 2008
- 2008 Helmhaus Zürich, Roman Signer: Projektionen. Filme und Videos 1975 - 2008
- 2008 Kunstraum Dornbirn, Installation. Unfall als Skulptur
- 2008 Rochester Art Center, Roman Signer: Works
- 2008 Hauser & Wirth London
- 2007 Hamburger Bahnhof, Roman Signer – Werke aus der Friedrich Christian Flick Collection - Museum für Gegenwart, Berlin
- 2007 Fruitmarket Gallery, Roman Signer – Works
- 2006 Ludwig Forum für Internationale Kunst, Roman Signer. Kunstpreis Aachen 2006
- 2006 Aargauer Kunsthaus, Roman Signer – Reisefotos
- 2006 Galician Centre of Contemporary Art, Roman Signer. Esculturas e instalacións, Santiago de Compostela
- 2010 Prix Meret Oppenheim
- 2008 Finalist for the Hugo Boss Prize
- 2008 Ernst-Franz-Vogelmann-Preis für Skulptur, Heilbronn
- 2006 Kunstpreis Aachen
- 2004 Kulturpreis der Stadt St. Gallen
- 1998 Konstanzer Kunstpreis
- 1998 Kulturpreis St. Gallen
- 1998 Kulturpreis Konstanz
- 1995 Kulturpreis Bregenz
- 1977 Eidgenössisches Kunststipendium
- 1974 Eidgenössisches Kunststipendium
- 1972 Eidgenössisches Kunststipendium
- 1972 Kiefer-Hablitzel Stipendium
- Roman Signer: Works, 2 November 2007 – 27 January 2008 The Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh.
- Roman Signer Skulptur Projekte Münster.
- Jakob Neulinger, (10 December 2008), Roman Signer at Galerie Martin Janda, Vienna, Austria Frieze Magazine.
- Roman Signer – Four Rooms, One Artist Swiss Institute, New York.
- Roman Signer – Four Rooms, One Artist Swiss Institute, New York.
- "Accident as sculpture" (Unfall als Skulptur) Archived 2011-07-06 at the Wayback Machine. at Kunstraum Dornbirn, Austria (2008) (German)
- Roman Signer: 56 Small Helicopters (56 Kleine Helikopter), September 2 – October 30, 2011 Smith Museum of Art, Smith College.
- Cinema - Roman Signer, March 25, 2011 - April 30, 2011 MERCER UNION - A Centre for Contemporary Art, Toronto.
- Roman Signer Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh.