Monday, 9 March 2015


at the Curve, the Barbican

Slow Motion, Photo Tristan Fewings, Getty Image

The Swiss artist Roman Signer's 'sculptural moments' use harnessed energy and movement to make objects do things they would not normally do. I'm writing this on the day that two Swiss are setting off to fly  round the world in a plane fuelled solely by solar power.

Here a kayak is being hauled at a sedate pace through the Curve - a 90 metre-long corridor/gallery - towed by a rope suspended from the ceiling. The kayak has variously been described as a javelin or a pine needle or a sardine. At first sight the fumbling movement  is amusing, then inscrutable and finally slightly alarming. Roman Signer said 'When I first saw the Curve it looked like a tunnel so I had a vision of the kayak that is pulled through this special space turning on itself at the end and taking the same path back'. It looks simple but the dimension of the kayak's turning circle is a challenge.

Photo Tristan Fewings, Getty Image
Then look at this video of a grey stony path. Signer is dragged along it, just managing to keep upright. At one point a group of frisky calves join in the fun and frolic beside him on the canal towpath on the left, until they lose interest (or breath). When Signer reaches his destination three large holes have been torn out of the base of the kayak. Upstanding they look like a ghastly grinning face. Upturned the kayak releases a torrent of sharp stones spilling and tumbling into an impressive mound.

Kayak with Fountain Photo Tristan Fewings, Getty Images
Lastly here is a kayak which has been adapted so that a powerful fountain sprouts out of its base. Generally speaking, from the Titanic onwards, water inside a boat is recognised by the general public as not an ideal situation. The work has been termed ambiguous, inscrutable, amusing, even unnatural.

When the Art Gallery at St Gallen, Switzerland, held an exhibition of Signer's work entitled The Subtle and Moving Art of Roman Singer, the curator gave some wise advice ;  
'It’s important to take the time to look at the entire process. 
Any visitor who does is sure to have a smile on their face at the end'.

To see more things that Signer can do with a kayak than you can have ever imagined:

I saw Roman Signer's first large sculptural show in England at Camden Arts Centre in 2001, and have never forgotten it. Later I went to the Kunsthaus in Zurich. On video I saw how he transforms everyday objects and materials by using them in a way which is anything but banal (exploding, catapulting, dragging etc).

Have the Swiss developed an unusual inventiveness and interest in and an understanding of how materials and objects might be made to behave in unforeseen ways? Horology for example. I ask because my grand-father Emil Strub won first prize in 1896 for designing a cog system which removed contact ice and packed snow from the Jungfrau mountain railway line. At a stroke the ‘wrong kind of snow’ was abolished. It opened the way for Switzerland and the rest of Europe to enjoy a winter season to complement the summer.

Another Swiss artist, Christian Marclay, is at the White Cube Bermondsey at the moment exploring "the fusion of fine art and audio cultures, transforming sounds and music into a visible, physical form through performance, collage, sculpture, installation, photography and video...a remarkably inventive show, combining art and music".

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