The ascension of Michal Rovner

Rovner's displays rotate around her encapsulation of countless minuscule people photographed from the side and from above in continuous motion.

rovner art 88 298 (photo credit: Tel Aviv Museum of Art)
rovner art 88 298
(photo credit: Tel Aviv Museum of Art)
It wasn't until Michal Rovner (b. Israel, 1957) flashed her video presentations and photo installations in her mid-career retrospective at New York's Whitney Museum of American Art in 2002 and represented Israel at the 2004 Venice Biennale that she began to attain an international reputation. Her status as a breakthrough video and installation artist led to a major exhibition at the prestigious Jeu de Paume in Paris last year and now to a full documentation of her complex animated works at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. Data Forms, a captivating set of Petri dishes filled with human hordes swirling and striding in what appear to be involuntary actions, was at the center of her show at the Israel Pavilion in Venice. Rovner's displays rotate around her encapsulation of countless minuscule people photographed from the side and from above in continuous motion. These images have been transferred digitally onto surfaces ranging from stone wells and blocks of basalt to exercise paper. In the exhibition's most sophisticated projection, Time Left, thousands of figures march hand-in-hand around the four walls of a darkened room, walking, jumping, bowing or swaying in a uniform cadence like sheaves of wheat in a summer breeze, all calculated to fit the surface they are projected on. And they, like the hypnotized audience trapped in the gallery, are witness to some unexplainable force that either keeps them from becoming individuals or retains a compelling need to maintain the continuity of the human species. There are times when the visitor must demonstrate absolute patience, for the images often shift in microscopic movements. A stone enclosure in the museum lobby contains projected silhouetted figures of her ubiquitous Lilliputians in fire red, circling the base like tribal ants in a cultic ceremony. Stone, 2004, the introductory section in the Sam and Ayala Zacks Pavilion, provides the viewer with Rovner's fundamental imagery and technological mechanisms that pervade the entire exhibition. Slabs of rough stone positioned in white display cases, spanning a divide between archaeological and geological specimens, are the artificial historical vehicles upon which countless minuscule figures are layered in horizontal lines or concentric circles, marching to and fro. Onto one stone, via a pedantic manipulation of disparate lines, she unites moving creatures to form what looks like archaic, possibly Akkadian, letter forms. This virtual Rosetta stone is an odd piece, in that it contains the abstract elements basic to Rovner's hypothesis but communicates something more reasonable and debatable than the individuals and groups migrating to no given target. In the same gallery Rovner also displays open notebooks upon which similar columns of impassive homunculi march with a great deal of determination, as if they were alphabetically organized to create actual texts. Tablet, 2004, one of the exhibition's most impressive works, consists of two colossal blocks of stone placed side by side on a bed of sand in a darkened enclave that emulates an ancient tomb. One enters this space on a ramp, looking down into the pit of sand. Illuminated dramatically by overhead lamps, scores of countless worm-like human forms gesticulate in unison to the eerie sounds of electronic music. The contrasts created between the immovable stone, precise lighting and the flighty figures on a rigid surface make for an exceptional installation brimming with a menacing spiritual nuance. An abstract stream of tangled light glowing from red to charcoal, churning across the screen like ignited fabric to caustic sound effects, represents the fundamental nature of Rovner's memories of her visit to the Kazakhstan oil fields in 2004. She has turned the vertical flame on its side so that its horizontal bias connotes a landscape that consumes itself and then reconstitutes. Fields of Fire is accompanied by Postcards from Kazakhstan, a dozen small video screens showing minute oil rigs pumping diligently on the horizon in a cadence that is almost indiscernible. A video work not included in the TAMA exhibition is Rovner's installation Living Landscape at the Yad Vashem Museum in Jerusalem. This m lange of figurative images, distorted, erased, transformed and renewed into a hazy cloud of memories and remembered places and events, is a marvelous, near symphonic, introduction to the institution's searing records of the Holocaust. Although Rovner's video installations overflow with stimulating cerebral suggestions, they are also the results of a technological world. They are captivating, but what happens when someone pulls the plug and the theater goes dark? (Tel Aviv Museum of Art, King Saul Blvd.) EVERY ONCE in a while I am confronted by a work of art that makes me stop and take a more critical look. This past week, an untitled canvas, one of several in an exhibition of works by Ibrahim Nubani, did just that. Large and robust, Nubani's square format painting is an impressive composition that simultaneously amalgamates geometric and organic leaf shapes, impasto fields with lightly washed transparencies and a Fauvish palette with somber tones. It was like observing a cooperative venture between the abstract expressionist Arshile Gorky and minimalist Josef Albers, who challenged themselves to create a work that combined Apollonian and Dionysian pictorial mannerisms. Although not entirely evident, because of the overlapping perplexity of colors and forms, the square (with a supplementary circle) is at the hub of this work. It begins with a frame of nine (three by three) squares that form a larger square in the picture's core and works out toward the canvas's edges, where three concentric broad bands, including one corner of an acerbic canary yellow, contain the entire composition like a carpenter's vise. A secondary controlling theme is a sea green cross tilted in the picture's upper right hand register. Similar to other forms, its unique color and angles are repeated surreptitiously in several other locations on the picture plane. Nubani constructs his complicated composition like an archaeological survey. He draws an accumulation of time lines that intersperse, subdivide, disappear and resurface in other parts of the design touching on solid or transparent shapes or carefully providing the picture with a structured plan. The other paintings in Nubani's exhibition, filled with the unrealized anguish of an artist still trying to find his way, do not meet the standards of the one described above. Nubani should take a good hard look at it, analyze the contents and come to some conclusions about where he wants to go. (Bineth Gallery, 15 Frishman, Tel Aviv.) Until May 7.