Elusive Boundariesby Hrag Vartanian
MICHAL ROVNER: THE SPACE BETWEEN | WHITNEY MUSEUM OF AMERICAN ART
When I visited Michal Rovner at her studio on Broadway near Bleecker, she told me one of those New York cabbie stories people tend to share over drinks. She was taking a cab to the airport and after the conventional niceties the driver asked in his thick accent where Rovner was from. “Israel,” she said. “The same place you’re from.” “How do you know where I’m from?” the man asked. Rovner told me she could often tell when someone was from the Middle East, and she guessed from his taxi ID he was probably Arab. “Where are you from?” she prodded. “Palestine,” he answered. I instantly recognized why Rovner liked the story. It said a lot about one of the dichotomies that appear in her art: the examination of boundaries even when they overlap.
Her mid-career show at the Whitney is perhaps larger than it should be, as only a fraction of the work exhibited approaches anything that can rightly be called a masterpiece. The starkness of the carcasses of a lamb in “Flying Lamb” (1988) and her formalist house series, “Outside” (1989 – 91), are fascinating studies that reveal her entry into modern art through the prism of photography. However, the first sustained sparks of originality really begin to appear in the studied manipulations of the One Person series (1992/93). The full title of this series, One-Person Game Against Nature, is based on game theory terminology which is used most often by students of strategic studies to calculate geopolitical maneuvering and other matters that involve oppositional force. Rovner booby traps the title from its inception, as she pares down the concept to an ironic level: It is a one-person game (a concept that is foreign to strategy games), and it is not oppositional but direct. Each photo foregrounds the tongue-like slivers that ripple on dense hues of chromogenic color. Slick like flesh on metal, or mysterious like gold fish in a bowl of black light, they are seductive, moody panels. Rovner makes the sheer beauty of her One-Person works alluring, tempting you past the grainy blown-up or silhouetted surfaces, towards the separation between the viewer and the subject. It is this divisive space that each work depends upon as a medium.
After the One-Person series, I found myself wandering quickly past the recurring images of birds, silhouetted figures, and barren landscapes. They are too many, too often, and in sequences that suggest fixation rather than new perspectives. As time passes in these works, her images slowly unfold with a new spirit. Her viewpoint shifts from the local to the universal; her images are visibly transformed. The show’s curator, Sylvia Wolf, explained to me that “the consistency of vision and the evolution in her creative thinking” make Rovner’s work special in many ways. “I think she speaks to a broad range of human experiences, there is hope in her images. I see solitude, struggling, conflict, and in the last piece in particular, I see community and time left,” Wolf said. “And yet in non-didactic, non-specific terms so that each viewer can appreciate these elements themselves in their own way.” But Rovner’s ambiguity tends to the extreme, and her work stands apart only when emotions are engaged at close distance. It is this point that suggests her more recent “peopled” videos are but a foundation for something broader she has yet to fully explore. In her recent videos, “Overhanging” (1999), “Time Left” (2002), and “Untitled” (2002), the individual is subsumed by the herd, always moving even if through seemingly sheer inertia. These are the moments in Rovner’s work that evoke the films of Shirin Neshat in their focus on the ritual aspects of our common humanity. Rovner relishes the ambiguity and is not one to explain her work; she leaves it open to interpretation. I asked her if the figures in these videos were displaced people, taking note of their semblance to refugees or migrants whose images are becoming all too commonplace in the media. The artist understood the comparison but shied away from definitions. She replied, “Displaced is a possibility to describe their situation. I would say they are not staying in one place. They are going from one place to the other, or from one time unit to another time unit. They are in transit, in transition. We have a huge storage of associations. Definitely, they are not in a stable situation. I don’t like to direct somebody’s way of seeing them.” “Overhanging” juxtaposes scenes of people walking through a harsh New York City winter and the torturous heat of the Israeli desert. It establishes dense frames for both worlds, both volatile and immersed in the whims of their environment. I work off Park Avenue, so I saw Rovner’s “Overhang” installation (on which “Overhanging” is based) in the spring of 2000, when it was originally projected onto 17 glass panels of a skyscraper every night. The images were primal and surreal, people walking across a flattened frame, like limbless masses, and a giant eagle flying backwards—it suspended all reality. The stray tourist traffic that ended up at its corner stood there in awe, “Honey, someone paid to do that, only in New York,” or something like that was what they usually said, though some were impressed. The scale of the work was uniquely New York, but at the Whitney show it is altered and reduced to two opposing screens in a darkened room lined with benches on the perpendicular walls. The tone is funerary, but the figures continue to sizzle and freeze in endless loops that shuttle back and forth between New York’s streets and the Negev desert. Emotionally her work is not fixed, always in transition, but emotional nonetheless. There seems to be an underlying program at work, an ordering of substance on a grander scale that is elusive but begins to surface.
In Michel Foucault’s Discipline and Punishment: The Birth of the Prison, he begins his chapter entitled “Docile Bodies” with a contrast that Rovner’s work deals with subconsciously. Foucault begins, “Let us take the ideal figure of the soldier as it was still seen in the early seventeenth century. To begin with, the soldier was someone who could be recognized from afar; he bore certain signs: the natural signs of his strength and his courage, the marks, too, of his pride.” A century later, much had changed, according to the French post-structuralist. “By the eighteenth century, the soldier has become something that can be made; out of a formless clay, and inept body, the machine required can be constructed; posture is gradually corrected; a calculated constraint runs slowly through each point of the body, mastering it, making it pliable, ready at all times, turning silently into the automatism of habit; in short, one has ‘got rid of the peasant’ and given him ‘the air of the soldier.’”
Rovner’s figures are mechanized, like automatons, objects which Foucault reminds us can be political puppets or the “small-scale models of power” favored by people like Frederick II, who obsessed over small machines and his well-trained, if mindless, regiments. Rovner’s people are not idealized but material, products of their environment and the experiences they endure. In “Time Left” and “Untitled,” the automatons emit a new life. Their centipede rhythms move in waves or crisscross like office workers passing through corridors. No longer are the figures predestined to isolation, but rather form part of a larger arabesque. Arranged like a hieroglyphic frieze, the figures jostle one another like rush hour at Grand Central Terminal or the crowds in any market. Standing in the center of “Time Left,” the sensation is more of careful surveillance than the earlier metaphoric images. If the incidental references to Foucault are subtle in the previous work, here they are blatant in the image of the panopticon. The idea is not unique to Foucault, but the philosopher used it as a central idea in Discipline and Punishment. The panopticon is a system of periphery buildings monitored by a central surveillance tower, and Rovner has created a digital equivalent. In “Time Left,” the viewer looks at the masses layered all around and reduced to signs. The artist inverts the original model by allowing the individual “signs” to wander and elude any centralized power. It may all be fiction but the figures seem to finally have a purpose, if only to avoid the destinies that the earlier works suggest they were powerless to transcend. The work finally moves beyond the surface of the body into what some may describe as the soul. No longer is Sisyphus frustrated and no longer as a viewer was I. Foucault concludes Discipline and Punishment with the line, “At this point I end a book that must serve as a historical background to various studies of the power of normalization and the formation of knowledge in modern society.”
Somehow I sense Rovner is poised to do something similar. By going beyond her surface and the body, she is comfortably in an arena where her images will flourish as they migrate away from their angst and towards something greater than themselves.
Hrag Vartanian is a writer, critic, and designer. He lives in Brooklyn, NY.