Review – Zelt By Roman Signer

zelt_2002Fig 1 (Zelt; 2002)

Brief:- Swiss artist Roman Signer uses photography, film and video to document performances, events or ‘akts’ he creates. Zelt comprises a sequence of images showing a man running from a tent, which then explodes. A passage of time and movement is depicted in each successive frame. The sequence relates a kind of ‘sculpture’ of changing forms that include the location of grass and trees, the tent, the man, the burst of flame and smoke. Characteristic of signers oeuvre, the event is both comic and mysterious. There is a sense of finality and transformation. Often there is nothing left but the photographic record, so its vital the record itself is as expressive of the event as possible. You could say that ‘earth artists’ like Andy Goldsworthy use photography in the same way, to document ephemera.

  • Would this work have been as effective if the cameras viewpoint has changed with each shot?
  • What encapsulates this sequence, makes it seem like a finished piece?
  • What do you think are the influences that led to this work?
  • Do you think the influences affect the way we interpret it?


initial Thoughts

These were my initial thoughts when I read through the manual at the start of my OCA Foundations in Photography journey last year.

Don’t like, a waste of my time to even look at it, a kid playing a prank, childish, pointless, at best the work of a teacher demonstrating the use of shutter speed as a technique to capture movement, or a photography student practicing and developing those skills.

Making time for consideration I have tried to see things from another perspective, and this has been really hard to do from my own frame of reference rather than that of other students. What I interpret is a reaction to all of the needless man-made wars and riots. A recreation of a flash point. We have had several wars recently in which the West goes into a country, blows the shit out of it, and then runs away leaving the said country to try to rebuild itself and without the support or infrastructure to do so.

What I have realised is that it is sometimes a challenge to drop my frame of reference and try to see things differently, from someone elses perspective, and this sequence is definitely one that I struggle with. The brief is really telling me what to see and how to view the image. I can see the necessity for that in order to prompt learning, but I have tried to review this series from my own perspective before considering possible alternatives.

Hand on heart I still see a guy, having fun with a motion camera and nothing more, and I believe that he does so without the intent of creating anything substantial or with a purpose. Yes I do get that sequence has a very clear start, middle and end, and can see how that is a very useful technique to use in photography and moving image. There is still space for individual interpretation and emotion in response to a series which does have a clear end point. I also believe that Zelt asks questions rather than telling me what to see (the brief told me what to see not the sequence). Signer has clearly provoked an emotional response wiithin me rather than a rational one. I will review Signer’s motivation shortly.


Would this work have been as effective if the cameras viewpoint has changed with each shot?

Yes from my point of view, but that’s because of my sociological framework. Changing of view point would have provided an alternative viewing of differing witness to an accident, and asked questions about the validity of using witness statements, when we all see things differently.

What encapsulates this sequence, makes it seem like a finished piece?

Having a start point that has a relay to the final photo works very well. Although you cannot see the tent in the final image there is a piece of debris to the right of the smoke. I’m left with the understanding that the tent has been destroyed, and that its inhabitant is safe.

What do you think are the influences that led to this work?

An obsession with fire and destruction, excitement, trepidation, war, riot, social commentary on the acts of Western Nations. Other than the brief telling me to see the “passage of time and movement” and ” kind of ‘sculpture’ of changing forms” I cannot conceive of an influence, and neither do I consider this to be a living sculpture. I believe the art world can be very pretentious in what it considers to be en vogue, and this sequence, without having viewed how Signer builds upon his previous work, the context of his production or his motivation, then I am left with the opinion that this is not art. There may be some craftsmanship, as there is in building a house, but not art such as the new Oslo Opera House, Norway. I use these as abstracts because I am beginning to consider the question ‘is photography art?’ This is a secondary question, with the primary one being ‘what is art?’ It was while viewing a Sky box set ‘Occupied’ (Occupied; 2015) that I considered that art can mean many things to people, and that craftsmanship of great skill may not be art.

If a person forges a wonderful piece of art, such as Madame Cézanne with Loosened Hair, has he created a work of art? If the answer is no, then there is the question of whether we considered it to be art before we discovered it was forged? If we did then how can it not be art now?

I have gone off point here but I am glad of the questions that I am beginning to explore. My understanding and ideas are being challenged and developed and I want that as both an artist and photographer.

Do you think the influences affect the way we interpret it?

No not in this case, because the influences are the ones that I have placed upon this sequence, and not the potential influences of Signer. The deficit is my own in relation to my lack of insight into this sequence, sorry Signer.

Roman Signer (b1938, Appenzell, Switzerland)

Signer began his career as an architecture intern, and became a technical draftsman following the advice of a careers counsellor Mr Koch, who also said that Signer would become an artist. He stuck with this career for around 10 years before attending the Lucerne School of Design, and then an exchange programme in Poland. Although he valued the development from researching and looking at the work of other artists, he doesnt feel he has been influenced by a particular style or artist. Infact he is very clear that his work is unique and original and comes from play and experimentation.  During an interview with Armin Senser (Senser, A; 2008), Signer describes art as being play and a game, and that he likes to make use of every day objects that have not been considered to be art previously. He makes use of tents, Kayaks, Bikes, fire, explosions, video, installation and land. He has even been pulled by a car, whilst in a Kayak, along a road with cows running to the side of him. The way that he challenges the concept of art has ensured that he has developed his games into visual and performance art which crosses the boundaries of genre, (riding a tricycle pretending to be a cosmonaut then being tipped up by his friends and disappearing in a cloud of smoke to create take off).

Although some of Signers work involves fire and explosion not all of it does, the exploration of movement appears to be the key theme of Signers. He is an explorer, and adventurer and an experimentalist, “Signer considers his artworks to be semi-controlled experiments in which he often cannot predict the outcome. Rather than perform in front of audiences, he records his “experiments” on film and in photographs.” (Litt; 2014).

Final Reflections

I am so glad that I have taken the time to do some research on Signer. What an amazing character with a great sense of humour in his approach, and I like that he doesn’t take himself or his art (eating humble pie right now) too seriously.

I believe that it is only right to be a viewer and write my initial reflections of how I have seen something before I undertake research. In this case what I have read has been thoroughly enjoyable and has radically altered my perspective on Signer. I don’t like Zelt, and I don’t consider it to be art, but in a wider sense I can see Signer as an artist.

This brings me back to the question of what is art? Maybe the viewer has as much of a say as anyone else in deciding what art is or isn’t.


Signer, R; 2002; Zelt; [Videostills: Aleksandra Signer]; AT: (accessed on 10/05/2018)


Litt, S; 2014; Swiss explosion artist Roman Signer will speak Saturday at the Cleveland Museum of Art – without detonations; Online AT; (accessed on 10/05/2018)

Occupied; 2015; Sky Atlantic; SkyBox Sets

Senser, A; 2008; Roman Signer by Armin Senser; Bomb Magazine; Online AT: (accessed on 10/05/2018)

Other references viewed

Phaidon; 2018; Roman Signer’s unconventional approach to art; Online AT: (accessed on 10/05/2018)

Gigon, A; 2014; The subtle and moving art of Roman Signer; Online AT: (accessed on 10/05/2018)



6 Replies to “Review – Zelt By Roman Signer”

    1. He’s a recent addition to Foundations and replaces Sophie Calle, who was in the 2014 manual. I’m going to review her though because she’s controversial in a different way.

      I was very impressed once I had a look at some of Signer’s other work. I think I have overly strong opinions sometimes.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. Interesting review Richard, I am coming to this part soon and I have glanced at it already and have to say, like your initial response, I am not sure what I make of it. Perhaps like you more research will clear the waters for me.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Exactly, and that’s why if we’re were asked to analyse a specific photo I try to look at it before doing any research. It’s also healthy because I can then contemplate that a viewer may not get my work and whether or not I need to change its presentation.

        Liked by 1 person

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