by ALEXANDER GLOVER
Michal Rovner (b1957) has used video, photography and sculpture throughout her career to express conflict, the cyclical nature of history, dislocation and human interaction. Ever since her mid-career retrospective at the Whitney Museum of American Art in 2002, Rovner has used the moving image quite unlike any other artist or film-maker. Through the years she has had more than 60 solo exhibitions, including shows at the Israeli Pavilion at the Venice Biennale as well as the Louvre. She is no stranger either to collaboration, having worked with composer Philip Glass on her video Notes (2001), for which Glass composed a score to accompany her moving images.
As a result of her desire to produce work that is free from narrative, or indeed people with any distinguishable features, the work possesses a distinct timelessness. Through editing videos of real people moving around slowly together in an abstracted environment, the artist creates new and immersive worlds for the viewer. Since her last exhibition at Pace New York, entitled Topography, Rovner has used modern LCD technology to present ideas. Using LCD monitors like a canvas, the artist has further explored what this technology can achieve in her current exhibition, Panorama – arguably her most impressive and ambitious show to date.
Alexander Glover: You use moving images in your work while simultaneously stripping it of any narrative. Why is it important to you to take away the narrative and reduce the work to its bare minimum?
Michal Rovner: That’s a great question to begin this with. I’ll answer simply first and then elaborate. I would say that I’m an artist first and foremost. I don’t want to tell a story. I’m looking for something underneath the story. It’s very important for me to start with reality. I work with video when my work could have easily been done with animation, as I strip all the people and places of any characteristics. You can’t really tell if it is a man or a woman, for example. I like to mix videos I’ve taken of people from different times into one work. This also applies to the locations I use, as I often mix together several completely different places. I do wonder why I like to mix different places together because I always feel as though it’s such a consideration. Perhaps it’s because space is not limited but a place is. Questions about space are what interest me the most. When does a space begin or end? My work Makom (Hebrew for “space”), which showed at the Louvre, was a reflection of my concern with the unlimited nature of space. When it comes to people, though, I’m really looking for the non-specific person. The figures I use could be me; they could be you. But what they do have to have is a sense of reality. The figures have to be real people.
AG: Do you ever draw influence from writers when thinking about your next exhibition [Rovner has just shown me a picture of a Theodor Adorno quote from an exhibition about migration she has recently attended]?
MR: Yes I do, I get a lot of inspiration from books, but what I read largely depends on what I’m working on and where. A year and a half ago I did a memorial for the children killed in the Holocaust, so I read a lot of history books around that time.
AG: It’s interesting that you use that example of reading a lot of history books because you’ve been known to concern yourself with the cyclical nature of history. What is it about this notion that interests you?
MR: I think maybe it’s because I wasn’t born in Alaska or Virginia. I was born in Israel and everywhere you go, you encounter different layers of time if you’re looking around. It’s there and you can really feel the footnotes of people, and you really see the history. Sometimes I feel as though I’m just part of an archaeological era. Could you see yourself as just archaeology or a particle? You know it’s also wonderful at the same time, though, because there’s a continuity to this.
AG: So there’s a duality to your feeling towards the cyclical nature of history? On the one hand, it’s quite unsettling because we know what is coming. On the other hand, it’s comforting because there’s continuity to it.
MR: Yes, definitely. You shouldn’t think about your temporality on a daily basis though! It’s this coming and going aspect to existence that I’m interested in. I live on a farm in Israel. I’m a farmer and I regularly see the processes of life sprouting from the ground and on to the land. Also, being in Israel, you are always aware of the presence of history. There’s a strong presence of both construction and destruction and it’s very intense. You can feel that it will continue, but also that it may break from the past.
AG: I can imagine life on your farm in Israel is quite a contrast to your life in an apartment in New York?
MR: Very different. My first serious teacher told me that the basis of all art is a conflict. In Israel, I could be sitting in my peaceful garden one minute thinking that it’s so beautiful and quiet. The next minute, there are helicopters everywhere. I keep my sanity in this environment by having my dogs around me.
AG: Do you think these contrasts in your life are present in your work?
MR: I don’t think contrasts are there, but I definitely think there is conflict. The other day somebody asked me what I was trying to say in my work. I said that the great thing about art, good art especially, is that it can have different meanings – even contradictory meanings. It’s often that I find myself flipping like a coin from one viewpoint to another. It’s good to change the way you view something. It’s like when you reboot a computer and restart everything.
AG: In some of the paintings in Panorama, there are a few works that contain a range of different reds that have a very striking effect. What was the thinking behind this choice in colour, and what feelings are you trying to evoke?
MR: Red is, of course, a hit of emotion. It’s associated with love or passion but also with blood. One work in the show looks likes a field and then the one next to it looks like a battlefield. It’s interesting that you bring this up because when my father saw my work, he said that he liked a particular one because it was red and that I should use more of it. If you are talking about what the natural progression from black and white would be in terms of the forces of colour, then you would have to say that it is red.
AG: That’s interesting because Gilbert & George used to work only with black and white when constructing their panel prints. The first colour they introduced to their work was red and it took them years until they found it. They chose to use it because it evoked such conflicting emotions, such as love and hate, within one tone. It expressed so much with so little.
MR: Wow, that’s fascinating. I never thought that I shared any similarities with them before. That’s wonderful, isn’t it?
AG: In your previous exhibition (Topography) at Pace in New York, you started using new LCD technology, which you have continued for this exhibition. Tell me more about why you use it.
MR: Before Topography, I never liked using screens. I never wanted it to look like monitors presenting the work. But now I really like the divisions that the monitors give to the work. For me, it looks like sheets of paper assembled together, or like a map that has been folded and then opened. With some of the screens, we’ve taken them apart and inserted Japanese paper inside, which is a complex thing to do as you risk the life of the screen. We do this so that you can’t see the pixelation of the screen and so the work has a calmness to it – so that it has the feeling of paper. Technically, you could say that these are works on paper. In some ways, the small ones are like documents or drawings. I like to think of the large projection when you enter the show as a sort of newspaper printout. The use of black and white has a timeless feel. You don’t know if what you’re seeing is from yesterday, or is if it is, in fact, from a long time ago. The time of it is not very clear. That piece [Array] looks as though it could be during the second world war in Russia, or even the third world war.
AG: We’ve established that your work evokes conflict, but without narrative, and it is interesting that you like to see one of your works as like the front page of a newspaper. What do you think of the way the news is presented to us through the media?
MR: Well, I collect images of major newspapers. Today, I found an incredible picture of a father and son hiding in Yemen in some kind of water tunnel. There’s a light that comes from above them and it looks almost like a religious painting. The images on the front cover of newspapers are always very beautiful, and yet they are always horrifying, too. It has to be this way; otherwise, it wouldn’t become news. A missile once hit my parent’s house, but luckily they weren’t in that night, so I’ve seen first-hand the kind of destruction that can occur. I’m amazed at the gap between what you see on television and what the war was for me. It was so flat and it didn’t have the smell or the radiance. The camera captured every detail. It was inside the battlefield and yet everything seemed so flat and pixelated. I also noticed this during 9/11, as I lived very close to the area. I remember when the second building collapsed, all the screaming and then the total silence. With all the smoke, you couldn’t breathe or see properly. Something existential and essential is missing through the news. It’s almost as though the news is filtering reality. It has all the details, but it is missing something very simple. It’s important to have the information, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. I think maybe we’ve developed ourselves to filter all the detailed information. I feel that all the information about what’s going on doesn’t translate properly to the outside world. I’m not a rightist in any way, shape or form, but at the same time I don’t feel as though the reality that we’re living in is being presented correctly. I don’t think people on the outside fully understand the reality of what goes on. I live 30 minutes away from Gaza and I’ve had to stay in a shelter with my head tucked between my legs because of missiles. Fear breeds anger and it can be easy to get upset or angry about what they’re doing to us. But then you have to also think, wait, what are we doing to them? It’s incredibly confusing with all the ethical questions.