As we were walking home one afternoon after a dispiriting apartment viewing in Neukölln, my wife paused next to an undistinguished block of pigeon-gray flats. “There’s a giant airplane hanging in that window,” she said, and pointed to the disused brewery across the street. She was right. It was a big yellow plane, hung like a prize trout and rotating clockwise behind tall, columnated windows.
We decided to investigate. It seemed that the building with the plane had been the Berliner Kindl brewery’s large boiler house. The city’s signature beer had moved its operations to Lichtenberg years ago, leaving the old complex uninhabited save the occasional unauthorized rave. The boilers were long gone now and the room had been converted into a gritty gallery cube, old winches and braces still traceable where they’d been set into the ceramic brick walls. Twenty meters over our head, a steepled skylight filled the room with an airy emptiness that brought to mind Van Gogh’s prison courtyard. In the middle, a lightweight aircraft gently spun in response to two industrial fans that had been bolted to opposing walls…
The artist Roman Signer was born in 1938 in Appenzell, in the canton of St. Gallen, where he still lives today. The town sits beneath the snowy peaks of the Alpsteil massif in northern Switzerland, a country that for centuries has been synonymous with political neutrality. There’s something strangely neutral about Signer’s work, too, even as it enacts scenes of damage and pandemonium. Although his so-called “action sculptures” are often read by critics as interrogations of causality and the scientific method, many of his best-known pieces—focused on acts of “controlled destruction,” namely explosions, fires, falls from great heights, etc.—bring to mind the significant airborne damage visited upon Europe during the Second World War. For one of his most well-known pieces, performed as part of documenta 8 in Kassel in 1987, Signer detonated explosives beneath stacks of thousands of sheets of paper, transforming the ordered arrangements into a wall of white chaos. Another work, 56 Small Helicopters (2008), documents the brief flights and subsequent collisions of the eponymous remote-control toys.
The abstracted and non-partisan suggestion of violence does not appear to be a reading Signer intends; at the very least, it has gone unremarked by most critics of the artist’s work. It’s unclear if that will change with his latest major installation, which the artist describes as follows:
An airplane hangs about four meters above the ground with its nose pointing downward—a lightweight aircraft. Then there are powerful fans on the walls that cause the plane to move, since it is hanging from a joint that can be turned very easily. And so the wind is supposed to cause the airplane to turn, as if it were spinning in a nosedive as it plummeted downward.1
There are two types of visitors to Roman Signer’s Kitfox Experimental, the year-long installation that is the first and only work of art currently on display in Berlin’s newest museum, the KINDL Center for Contemporary Art. At least, that’s what we were told by the young art student who stood behind a desk at the boiler house entrance. The noise of the fans was tremendous, and we were shouting.
Some visitors, the woman said, walk carefully around the edge of the room, never stepping into the “crash zone” beneath the plane.
“I was the other type,” I guessed. She nodded. The first thing I’d done was to walk directly under the empty cockpit and cherry-red nose, all arrested in permanent, spiraling descent. There was no possibility of the thick cable snapping, I knew, but despite all self-assurances my heartbeat quickened as I looked into this grimly spinning image: the last thing I’d ever see, in the unlikely event that a plane were to fall directly onto my head.
“Some people go straight for the center,” the art student went on, “some kind of cautiously approach it. Some people start to walk beneath it and then change their minds.”
Even in our era of unprecedented commercial marvels—an era in which skydiving lessons, reduced-gravity (i.e. “weightless”) in-flight experiences, and remote-control flying drones are but a credit-card number away—it might surprise you to learn that it’s possible for an interested amateur to purchase all the parts required to build a functional airplane. The Kitfox Experimental is just one popular model of such lightweight “kit-build aircrafts,” flight-worthy machines made available for enthusiasts to purchase online, assemble, and—assuming the necessary licenses are in order—take to the skies.
Roman Signer “sculpted” the KINDL Center’s Kitfox Experimental in the pure IKEA-like sense that he fit together the prefabricated pieces. Then he took the plane for a spin over the Alps. (Signer is a licensed pilot.) It was not flown to Berlin, however. Rather it was shipped piecemeal by truck in advance of the exhibition’s opening last September. The engine has been removed, but in a repaired state the plane may be flown. It may also be hung vertically in a gallery, an expensive and kinetic update to Duchamp’s Fountain, which debuted in 1917, fourteen years after the Wright Brothers built the world’s first fixed-wing aircraft, and just five years after the first use of the same to rain destruction upon a civilian population in the form of aerial bombing.
On my third or fourth visit to Roman Signer’s Kitfox Experimental, the conceptual art piece currently on display at the KINDL Center for Contemporary Art, I was encouraged not merely to stand but to lie down directly beneath the dangling aircraft. In this way (my advisor suggested) I would get the full experience desired by the artist, who claimed to be inspired by an experience he’d had as a child: daydreaming in a Swiss meadow when a military pilot decided to “buzz” him. I lowered myself to the concrete floor. The plane’s nose was the same exact colors as Ronald McDonald: primary red and yellow. The same color as warning signs, too: Emergency Exit | Stop | High Voltage | Do Not Enter.
Except for the roar of the fans that were causing the plane to rotate, there was no noise. I was alone on the sun-warmed floor, where a feeling of contentment came over me. I recognized the danger of the plane, which in my daze appeared to be plummeting downwards with impossible force, no more than a nanosecond or two away from impact with the squishy, delicate body below it. Yet the danger was remote. I felt completely passive.
As I lay there, it dawned on me that Debord’s “absolute fulfillment in the spectacle” finds its apex in the airplane.2 One need only reflect on the object’s embodied concepts of speed, flight, luxury, atemporal placelessness (Debord again: “This society which eliminates geographical distance reproduces distance internally as spectacular separation”), the absolute passivity of the passenger, the plane as image passing “above” the tangible world, all of it surrounded by the sublimated specter of death: the bomb, the drone strike, the strafe, the crash.3 The airplane as work of art is an even further kind of spectacular absolute: with the ready-made object already overflowing with signification, the artist himself is placed offstage, reduced to the status of assembler.
The concept of kamikaze, which refers to both the protective “spirit wind” of Japanese myth and the wartime martyrs who adopted its name, continues to capture the imaginations of military historians despite its comparatively minor role in the Pacific Theater of the Second World War. One of the persistent claims made about the fighters is that they felt no fear. A popular vision, encouraged by the Japanese military, depicted volunteers lining up at the flight yard. Yet this claim has been roundly debunked in all but the most romantic accounts of the war. In actuality, men were often sent to their airborne coffins in states of extreme drunkenness or cataleptic terror, or else they were coerced or even physically forced into the cockpit.
In any case, advancements in military strategy, anti-aircraft technology, and drone warfare have placed the kamikaze pilot in the same lot as the milkman and switchboard operator, in the obsolescent annals of what John Maynard Keynes called “technological unemployment.” Today, even the bombardier is threatened. The drone is a further and more perfect abstraction of the tendency of air battle to establish an alienating distance between the killer and his victim. As for the suicidal terrorist, he may commandeer an airplane, but not possess one in the everyday course of his labor.
The relationship between these facts and the aggressive Kitfox Experimental by Roman Signer, in which the artist aims his own empty airplane at the willing spectator, remains, to this critic, a bit fuzzy.
In a 2008 interview in BOMB Magazine, Roman Signer was invited to comment on the differences between his work and that of the famous German conceptual artist Joseph Beuys. In the interview, Signer begins with a rebuke of Beuys’s seriousness before making an apparently unrelated, albeit interesting, criticism:
RS: Beuys was always too serious for me. Always that theory, that lecturing. He did individual pieces of genius. But the theory . . .
[BOMB interviewer]: Of course, Beuys’s comments did provoke; art provokes. In light of his involvement in World War II, his I Like America and America Likes Me action was certainly an impudence.
RS: Beuys had been a pilot of the German air force during World War II. He didn’t have to become a pilot. He was trained in the former Breslau and apparently dropped bombs with the Stukas.4
A modern tragedy struck while I was compiling notes for my proposed review of Roman Signer’s Kitfox Experimental, a conceptual work of art that happens to be on view in the neighborhood where I live. (I’d visited it several times in the months since its September opening.) “Absturz in den Alpen” read the headline in next morning’s Der Tagesspiegel. A Germanwings Airbus A320 had crashed in the French Alps, killing all 150 on board. My inchoate thoughts about art, drone warfare, and kamikaze pilots seemed insufficiently small in the face of such a catastrophe, even if it was the sort of disaster guaranteed to take place every few months or years.
The day after the crash, I attended a public conversation between Signer and a museum curator at the site of his installation, the KINDL Center for Contemporary Art. The night before, I’d gone to an old Polish bar to watch news coverage of the wreckage. I’d chatted with the bar’s owner, an aging beauty from Krakow who’d escaped to West Berlin in the 1980s. At the time, we couldn’t imagine the cause of the crash. By the next evening, however, it was becoming increasingly clear that the disaster was an insane act of evil orchestrated by the plane’s young co-pilot.
The crash was only briefly mentioned during the conversation with Signer. More interesting than the talk itself was the way in which, beforehand, audience members had fought among themselves for the privilege of securing a folding chair directly beneath the hanging Kitfox. The news had shaken no one’s lust for that coveted, deadly spot.
In Terror from the Air, Peter Sloterdijk writes of the twentieth century that “anybody wanting to grasp the originality of the era has to consider: the practice of terrorism, the concept of product design, and environmental thinking.”5 By “environmental thinking” he is referring not just to climate change but to a Copernican revolution in how humans think about themselves in relation to the world: from mustard gas to Guernica, from scuba diving to Chernobyl. In the following days, I tried not to think about the crash of the Airbus A320—an event that so elegantly combined the three millennial innovations that are the focus of Sloterdijk’s book—yet I was obsessed by the hysterical, media-crafted image of the experienced pilot swinging his fire axe or crowbar into the adamantine cockpit door, having been outfoxed by a madman, by post-9/11 airplane design, and by the very environment of the wild blue yonder. It did nothing to curb my obsession when rumors of the inevitable cell-phone video surfaced some days later, purportedly taken from inside the airplane by one of the crash’s victims. The transcript of the cockpit voice recorder, published by Paris Match, paints a lurid picture of chaos apparently confirmed by the discovered video. As I write these words, neither is publicly available; hopefully they’ll remain private. Yet, were one of the recordings to appear online, many of us would find ourselves unable to resist the spectacle, drawn by the same temptation that pulls you beneath the dangling plane: the better to imagine the clear sky, its sudden interruption.