China Academy of Art Museum (218 Nanshan Lu, Hangzhou), 2014.08.27 – 2014.09.09
After a year’s worth of preparation, the Swiss artist Roman Signer opened his first touring exhibition at its first stop in China, at the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou. Over 205 works from 1975 to 1989 were presented, including Super 8 video documentation of performances, and a group of duo-channel HD projections. (1) Additionally, dozens of publications about Signer’s works were open for viewers to peruse – with white gloves – in the documents area on the first floor.
100 small projectors formed a circle along the circular exhibition hall on the second floor. Each projection was about 30-40 cm wide, shown roughly at the height of viewers’ eyes, forming a pell-mell loop of videos projected. Since the videos were all without audio, the sounds from the performances all had to be imagined; this raised the tension of silence in the space. These “time sculptures” are a visual record of performances and happenings arising from Signer’s sculptural, process-based vision which developed from the 1970s. These documents have come to be viewed as independent art works.
The Roman Signer solo show at the Aargauder Kunsthaus in Switzerland in early 2012 also exhibited 36 pieces of Super8 videos from 1975–1989, only there, the exhibition display format was completely different. The projection screens were displayed neatly in a row one after the other, filling up a 600 sqm exhibition hall—closer to the traditional museum display. In contrast, the small projections this time mostly had pixellation and glitches, thus losing something in color and reality while also heightening the traces of time elapsed.
Perhaps viewers heading to the exhibition had higher expectations; still, on site, one could not help viewing things rather restlessly. These videos, which appear like pranks alongside the serious face of the artist featured in them, form fleeting reflections of reality. These are not cheap, eye-catching stunts, nor lengthy sermons on concepts; some are simple in medium, offering unadorned reality.
Since 1972, Signer has taken part in countless exhibitions, including the Venice Biennales in 1976 and 1999 and the 1987 Documenta in Kassel, as well as many others. Signer has become one of the most important artists working with explosive performances, time sculptures and videos.
Signer has long had connections in China. In 1981, he followed the last vestiges of leftist romantic idealism to come to China. Thirty years later, Signer came again to China as the last artist in the “Performance and Video” series curated by Li Zhenhua, where Signer conducted three lectures, introduced and played some of his video works. Signer was clearly advanced in age at that point, but he was full of spirit. He seriously and meticulously described his own performances with explosions. When the audience asked him about Cai Guo-Qiang, Signer stressed, “My creative works are about the individual. All attempts I’ve done are for my own experience, and then spread through videos, after which others would invite me to do some small-scale public performances. But these are not really like works of performance art—there is no consciousness of the audience. Large-scale installations like “Aktion vor der Orangerie” at the closing of the Kassel Documenta are rare. Cai Guo-Qiang, on the other hand, is very performative – with works made for the audience.
Viewing Signer’s works feels a bit like sliding one’s hand into the water—sensing the ripples of the running fluid, the dangers lurking within, the velvety temptations, the refreshing touch. As Signer himself said, “When I arrive in a new city, I usually search out water.” (3)
(1) During the 2012 Shanghai Biennale, Roman Signer conducted a performance inside the smokestack at Shanghai’s Power Station of Art: from the top of the smokestack, a huge wooden ball filled with blue paint was dropped. Two HD video cameras at the side and on the top recorded the process of the sphere plummeting and fragmenting, and the paint splattering everywhere.