ZURICH.- The internationally known Swiss artist Roman Signer (born 1938) is without a doubt one of the most independent protagonists of the modern art scene. Born in Appenzell, he is a familiar figure to the general public mostly because of his many spectacular activities. Since the 1970s Signer has submitted everyday objects to unusual transformation processes, played around with explosives, or created ephemeral sculptures. Since 1981 he has operated in public: in 1987 he surprised Documenta 8 with a fulminating final performance where, for a few short moments, he erected a gigantic wall out of exploding crushed paper. In 1989 he extended a wick from his birthplace in Appenzell to his home in St Gallen and let it burn slowly for 35 days. For the opening of the new Sihlcity shopping centre in Zurich in 2007 he installed a rail with a moving suitcase, which continually filled itself with water and then emptied -- something like the flow of capital, circulating unhindered.
The suitcase is a representation par excellence of the metaphor in Signer's works. Not without reason did Peter Liechti use this element for the title of his 1996 film portrait of Signer, which made a wide impact not only through Signer's beloved experimental object but via all of his works. The everyday object, which together with all of the film's impressions and revelations stands as code for the Reise-Dasein of the artist (which translates roughly as 'the consciousness of the artist as a traveller'), here mutates into a vehicle, but it can also become a missile. For what often seems just the purely coincidental result of a naughty boy's mood partially hearkens back to ideas and wishes long nursed by the artist: Signer regularly records spontaneous ideas on the first scrap of paper to hand, which he then places in a box and guards like treasure, the gold therein one day to be retrieved and realised. Frequently the realization of these ideas is planned far in advance and is the expression of a complex visualization process. The ETH Graphische Sammlung exhibition shows this creative process for the first time, enabling the public to share it via the juxtaposition of sketches and models. The show's core is an omnibus volume of sketched ideas from the holdings of the Graphische Sammlung, material from the early 1970s to the late 1990s. These give initial hints of images, combined with precise details, embellishments to already realized projects including models for new schemes, drafts of entire activities or concepts for planned shows - a body of ideas to which Signer continually referred and further developed. Also shown are roughly a dozen never previously exhibited models lent by the artist, displayed on a large table which he designed especially for this event. These models firstly comprise working instruments, but they are also works of art, customized by Signer's father-in-law Stanislaw Rogowiec.
The suitcase appears here too: in one case Signer, with his signature simplicity, designs an installation comprising a piece of baggage floating lightly over a strong air current; in another a model simulates a suitcase satellite fixed to a pole and circling the room. From a slowly-creeping kajak to his latest plan of a Christmas tree in a water tank, from his oldest sand projects to the boots in his design for the fountain at the ETH's Paul Scherrer Institute - each exhibit confronts the viewer with Signer's subversively funny approach to the object itself, while also embodying the artist's aesthetic search for a valid form for his situational ideas. Each exhibit also has its own little story. In this connection the artist's close relationship with ETH, also documented in the show, is of interest: in the late 1960s Signer worked several times for the ETH Laboratory of Hydraulics, Hydrology and Glaciology (VAW), and in 1997 his Sternenhimmel activity accompanied the inauguration of the ETH Collegium Helveticum.