Bookended by two earlier works, ‘Slow Movement’, the Swiss artist Roman Signer’s commission for the Barbican Centre’s Curve Gallery, is both a literal journey and a bridge between two moments in time and two sides of a practice.
The common theme in these, and two other site-specific interventions in the building, is the Kayak. This is a recurring motif in the 76 year old’s work, and has been so for some three decades since he was forced to stop kayaking himself. In the gallery he has installed a track on the ceiling. A piece of rope pulls the kayak behind it. It is slow but steady progress, gliding through the descriptively named curve gallery.
Yet our voyage starts before this. We commence with the video ‘Kayak’ (2000), a film of the artist in said boat being towed behind a van while being filmed by his assistant. The journey is relatively short yet bucolic, grinding along a dirt track next to a canal, at one point accompanied by a herd of grazing cattle corralled by this strange man on his journey. The voyage halts at the point when Signer’s feet break through the fiberglass shell to reveal the gravel beneath.
These are exactly the actions for which Signer has become renowned: mildly anarchic like those of an unruly child who just wanted to see what would happen if he pushed the boundaries. Yet the action gives you the keys to the work on display here, as well as offering you context for the more contemplative pace of the new installation. As the showpiece departs, we the audience set off with it, progressing serenely along the plywood floor and past the Brutalist concrete pillars of this iconic building. Its movement is slow, steady and concentrated, ours is stop-and-start, always struggling to keep up without overtaking, finding it difficult match its rhythm. When the craft reaches the other end of the gallery it pauses, just for a moment, before doing an awkward pirouette and gliding back off again, leaving us standing even further back in time with the video ‘Eskimorolle’ (1995). In this work we see a kayak attached to what appears to be a spit, around it is wound a rope with one end tied to a bicycle. The artist gets on the bike and cycles off into the distance. All the time the rope unwinds, turning the boat, performing continual Eskimo rolls, until it ends leaving the vessel perfectly right side up but with the artist nowhere to be seen.
It is the ropes and the act of pulling that ties these works together, whether the artist is instigating the motion or being pulled himself. Throughout the show it seems, ultimately, that it is life that is really the energy source. Life’s plodding insistence, regardless of our interventions is the artist’s focus. The rest of us, including Signer, are just along for the ride.