Roman Signer

Born in 1938 in Appenzell (CH)
Lives and works in Saint-Gallen (CH)


B&W photograph on Baryta paper
36 x 24 cm
Year of Purchase: 2006

In this work, which lies somewhere between land-art, minimal sculpture, and the ready-made, Roman Signer placed a Plexiglas box on a sloping bank, half-filled with water drawn from the river below. The resulting photograph Horizont (1973) bears witness to this temporary placement by emphasizing the horizontal line of the water which deviates from the natural downhill slope followed by other elements in the frame. Emblematically, this image testifies to one of the first instances of the artist leaving his studio to work directly in nature, following the principle of discreet and voluntary intervention, which would become his trademark. Indeed, as in this case, it is most often a question of the use and the manifestation of natural elements and forces of a landscape by subjecting them to materials and objects brought for the purpose. In Horizont, water has thus left the river bed and its flow in order to become immobilized for an instant in this geometric container whose inclined position it challenges with quiet determination. The mountainous landscape thus becomes transformed by this minimal, and nearly translucent, intervention. Two perspectives are being opposed: the line of the horizon, liquid and invariably linear, and the slope defined by chance and irregularity. Horizontal universality against the contingency of nature. Logos against cosmos. Horizon, defined as an “imaginary, circular line whose center is occupied by the observer and at which the sky and the earth seem to join,” receives here concrete signification. As a result, there is something vaguely romantic about this perfect line functioning as a horizon-in-a-box. If water has often been used by the artist, it’s generally not as a stable, fixed element but rather as something likely to erupt, to spread, or to evaporate. Organic and lively, it springs, for example, from a pair of boots, projected by explosives in a timed photograph (Wasserstiefel, 1986). Snowy and solid, it forms a gradually melting puddle whose contours are being redrawn on the ground (Schneefleck, 1979). Horizont, which is a placid version of a recurrent play on gravity, attests to Signer’s early affinity for conceptual art, evoking such historical works as the Condensation Cube (1963–4) or the flow of Wave (1964–5) by the American Hans Haacke.

However, at a closer look, Signer’s work is not all that static or calm, but rather reveals a dynamic potential. The high water level almost makes the cube tip over. The spilled water would then return to its course. Horizont is a reminder of a physical constant: no matter where it is, water embodies the potential level of a multitude of parallel, imaginary horizons. Thus the artist explains to have “imagined that water could rise to that level during a flood.” He adds that “in one’s mind, one can project that line onto the opposite bank.” With an astounding efficacy and a dose of irony, Singer’s piece thus uncovers, at the minimal level, the hidden forces of the universe and the way in which the laws of physics are able to counter visual logic. It is a simple magic which operates as an echo of artistic creation in that it subverts the meaning of what is being shown, develops along tangents and plays on a disobedience to the habits of the gaze. As Marcel Duchamp said, art is like electricity: we know its effects, but have no idea what it is. The same is true of gravity and fluid dynamics.

Guillaume Désanges