MICHAL ROVNER Topographyby Robert C. Morgan
PACE GALLERY | NOVEMBER 8 – DECEMBER 22, 2012
Much of what I have to tell about the current exhibition by Michal Rovner at Pace Gallery relates to the ineluctable consistency present in her work that has advanced over the years. It was during my first visit to Israel in 1995 that I stood in the middle of the Negev observing this desert tableau through the lens of a sirocco, or desert sand storm, that transformed the ground and sky into a nearly limitless yellowish glow. It was a sight to behold. Rovner was poised on the rim of an enormous crater at Mitzpe Ramon—presumably one of the largest natural craters created from a fallen meteor—photographing the silhouettes of people walking against the fierce dust-laden winds. Watching her move on the edge of the basin, with camera in hand, suggested something important in the process of unfolding: the recording of a natural event involving human beings, one capable of being transposed and updated as a statement on the modern human condition.
At the time, Rovner was still working with increasingly large-format photography. Eventually, she would evolve into video, reversing the heightened scale of her walking silhouettes into miniature, as seen in her breakthrough exhibition at the Israeli Pavilion during the hot Venetian summer of 2003. Featuring a work called “Data Zone,” Rovner installed small petri dishes on metal tables in a darkened space. Within each dish were tiny images of people seen from a bird’s eye view, morphing into shapes that appeared like chromosomes, specimens, or bacterial agents. Rovner’s installation appropriately simulated the appearance of a bio-tech laboratory—a kind of simulated microcosmic interface with a macrocosmic universe—that might also be interpreted as a yin-yang phenomenon where microscopic agents, including the X and Y chromosomes, remain in constant flux, forever adjusting themselves to the pulse of the universe.
Rovner’s art persists in the continuum of human life, the tactile experience of how we live in relation to one another, the push and pull, not in formal terms, but according to our human trace: the body as the source of writing. This is not without an emotional component. To see these endless human chains, where people are drawn holding tight to one another, as in the projections from her current exhibition Topography, wields an inescapable message—that our destiny is finally about a sense of togetherness with nature.
The environment has always been at the forefront of her work: art and science function interactively as revealed in “Helix E” (2012), a work that combines the use of an LCD monitor with paper and video. The sign of the helix is a sign of the universe as it relates to the most infinitesimal life structures. In employing the form, Rovner celebrates its sheer beauty and elegance as a signifier of that life. Through a vertical opening in the inner wall of the gallery, “Echo” (2012) reveals two video projections shown on two equal vertical stacks of black stones. On the left is the negative reversal of a waving Cypress tree; on the right is the positive image. The slow, natural, kinetic vibration of this work is one of the most compelling in the exhibition.
Observing the ancient black limestone as digital light flickers silently across the horizontal crevices in works such as “Broshei Laila” and “Gevaot”(both 2012), a reference to the “zips” of Barnett Newman is inevitable. In the former of the two, a line of tiny people, in white and black, appear as if they are ascending a hillside. The results are at times hypnotic, as one has to remember that all this is achieved through the simulation of digital effect. Still, the silent, steady drama of the human line of participants suggests a sign of mortal struggle between order and chaos. Their movements become an affirmation in correspondence with another macrocosm—synonyms for a world ruptured through conflict.
Such aggregations of tiny human simulations, of a more spatial, less linear variety, are also present in a truly fine work called “Mount Har Zeitim” (2012). The projection here is on white limestone, which carries a somewhat different aura from the black. The decision to project black-and-white imagery on black-and-white stones is less a symbolic one than a pictorial means by which to lend a degree of abstraction or distance from cinema as we know it, and to take us back to ancient petroglyphs as a source of writing. Yet the stones are not entirely neutral signs, and are thus shown in another work without a projection, simply as a vertical stack placed against the wall. In this magnificently intuitive gesture, the stones speak across time as they hold their place within the present.
Like in quantum physics, where every atom is measured and every decimal vibrates as time and space fuse together, the various parts in Rovner’s aesthetic exegesis function as internal fragments within the syntax of writing, both within and outside the limits of the known universe. Their physical resemblances suggest forms of aggregation, disintegration, and dialectical movement; the elegant motion of the figures suggest a quark, a steady skipping pulse, a transition in slow time. In relation to human memory, time becomes relative.
Rovner’s vision as an artist resounds defiantly in step with the overwhelming discoveries scientists have provided in offering a prognosis to the ecological distance we must travel in order for the human species to survive and regenerate. Topography suggests an ontological dimension as well as an ecological one. It implies a return to the ethics of the 17th century Dutch philosopher, Baruch Spinoza. It was his idea that we can still make decisions on a personal level that impact our sense of well-being, and thus, live at peace with our surroundings (nature), including our neighbors.
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