Tate Britain Exhibition

Art Now: Michal Rovner

Michal Rovner, Mutual Interest 1997

The sound of helicopter blades, of high altitude turbulence, even perhaps of gunfire, seems to ricochet off the walls as a mass of beating wings cascades across the screen. One sequence of images cuts to another and then another in an unsettling and seemingly random order. A convincing identification of the images on screen remains more or less impossible: one could imagine a swarm of insects massing in response to danger or a crowd dispersing in the face of unforeseen attack; a succession of fighter planes on the offensive or birds driven by instinct or panic. What links these different readings is not so much their common origin in footage taken by the artist of birds in flight but more the overwhelming sense of violence and foreboding that they impart. For beyond the seemingly aimless confusion of behaviour there is, in each scenario, a group dynamic in which chaos is overlaid by a kind of intangible logic, a hidden code of conduct; possibly, a reason.

Birds are often associated with freedom and divine power; they have a central role in religious and folk mythology. They are taken to represent the disembodied soul, especially the separable soul, absent while the body is sick or sleeping, or the soul that is finally released after death. Birds are seen as messengers of the gods, bringing news from heaven to earth and back; they are represented in folklore as figures bearing truth. No easy symbolic or metaphorical scheme is proposed by Michal Rovner. Her birds provoke the imagination in an unaccountable way and the many different identities they assume are locked together in a three-sided installation, in which our experience is driven by repetition and the accumulation of references to sounds and images, each as ambiguous as the last. Rovner’s Mutual Interest the title of this, her most recent work, evokes a situation of constant change and confusion.

In contrast are the works entitled Merging. These large murals show groups of figures at a distance in vacant space. The figures are frontal, held or possibly clinging together, faceless and anonymous. These are monumental works, sombre and morbid, in which the strung out figures appear to be less like representations of real bodies than a fragile thickening of the medium itself, integral to the space around them. Over the last decade Rovner has evolved an original process through which ‘photographic’ images shot on video or Polaroid are processed using techniques from computer technology and video, photography, printmaking and painting. Her images are often staged, as these were, using actors in the desert; they are reduced to signs, visual traces of an event, because the process reduces everything to a configuration of quasi- abstract marks on the surface. The effect is to abstract from the original, to break with the boundaries of the image and represent it in fragments held on the picture plane like a mirage in space. Rovner creates a liminal zone between the real and the imaginary, between the viewer and the image, between life and death. It is a zone which invites meditation. Whereas abstraction is often associated with the effacement of metaphor and the distillation of essence from appearance, the result, in Rovner’s work, is an ambiguity which ensures a layering of metaphor: the image becomes capable of many competing evocations.

Rovner’s film Border was shot on and around the border between Israel and Lebanon. Reality is constructed in different ways, by artists and politicians, and there are different ways of responding to it as information or experience. Rovner’s border is a place set aside from normal life, with its own strange reality and beauty, a place where art and war are in dialogue. Material for the film was shot over a short period and then processed and edited in the studio over many months. Rovner’s film breaks with conventions of film - making by combining alternative and opposing genres. The film uses documentary footage of military and civilian activity along the border and much of it is roughly made using a hand-held camera: some of it is taken at night, some from the front seat of a car.

The film contains, at intervals, scenes of great natural beauty, of distant mountain ranges, of birds crossing the border, of ominous rock formations massed beyond the wire. But most of the time the images are of the border road and of the other side beyond, of cars and people moving slowly back-wards or forwards. Tensions are constructed and heighten without hope of release. Some passages were filmed by the artist herself, other parts by an unidentifiable observer; additional material was shot by the Commander of the border whose conversations with the artist intersperse the carefully reconstructed ‘fiction’ that is the result.

Rovner’s film is an exploration of the border as both a place and a concept - a meeting point between opposing points of view and opposing forces: between reality and fiction, between action and inaction, between presence and absence.

Michal Rovner was born in Tel Aviv but has lived and worked in New York since 1988. Over the last decade she has revisited Israel on several occasions to make a number of projects on familiar terrain. The Outside series was based on an abandoned Bedouin house Rovner came across in the Israeli desert. Less interested in the house itself than in the notion of the house as archetype, she creates images which reveal the shadowy spectre of a house, stripped of any anecdote that might recall a sense of identity or history or circumstance, things that we might expect from the photo- graphic image. Each picture is different but the series provides no unfolding or narrative or development; rather they present themselves as endless reworkings, each image an attempt to describe an ungraspable reality. In another project, also resulting in an extended series of works, Rovner took, as her starting point, figures floating in the Dead Sea. For this series, entitled One-Person-Game Against Nature, Rovner directed a number of actors to move around in the water, to swim and to float. She photographed them at a distance and later transformed the material in the studio. The results are extraordinary images of bodies at once dissolving into the surface and emerging from it, levitating and sinking, water trans- posed into a medium as light and intangible as air. These are fugitive images, holding us at bay in their denial of focus. In these earlier series, as in the three interrelated projects at the Tate, Rovner prises open the gap between what you see, what you know, and what you feel. There is, in all her work this border area, a threshold not to be crossed but to be experienced through imagi- nation and memory: a place which is suspended in time and space, a place for philosophical speculation.

Text written by Frances Morris

Works on display

Mutual Interest
Video installation in three parts

Panaflax murals

Film, 60’


Born 1957, Tel Aviv, Israel. 1979-81 Tel Aviv University. 1981-85 Bezalel Academy of Art. Lives and works in New York

Tate Britain

London SW1P 4RG
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28 May – 3 August 1997