Even before Manhattan’s West Side piers opened to the public for the 2004 Armory show, a piece by Israeli-born video artist Michal Rovner had already sold for $90,000: a long white steel laboratory table appointed with Petrie dishes, within which quivering DNA-like forms suggest images seen under a microscope. In fact, the images are video projections of people choreographed to Israeli folkdance music, and the “dancers” are Rovner and a group of her friends.
The steel table, along with nine others like it, had been shown at the Venice Biennale in June 2003 where, according to Marc Glimcher, president of the PaceWildenstein gallery in New York, “people went crazy.”
“What attracted us was to see this abstract work click,” said Glimcher, in an interview with the Forward. “Rovner creates a fertile place for people to look. It’s hard for video artists to make the leap from narrative film to a physical object — like the lab table itself.” Indeed, human identification is not the point of these video projections. Instead, they hint at Rovner’s particular vision for her art: Kinetic, closer to Calder than to the traditional narrative of video, the projections connect to elemental vibrations, the very matter of life.
The Biennale became a turning point in Rovner’s career. PaceWildenstein began to represent her from the first day in Venice, immediately selling eight of the steel tables. It held back the ninth for the New York Armory exhibit, creating buzz for a new show of Rovner’s work scheduled to begin April 30 in PaceWildenstein’s huge space on West 25th Street.
Born in 1957 in Tel Aviv to a father descended from the first Russian refugees to settle there in the late 19th century and a mother who arrived from Germany in 1933, Rovner is known among Israelis as one who has made it big on the international art scene. Her work is on view at the Tel Aviv Museum and the Israel Museum, but it is also part of permanent collections at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam, the Tate Gallery in London, the Corcoran Gallery in Washington, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Brooklyn Museum, MOMA and the Whitney in New York.
“She is cutting edge, one of the 10 most important young artists in the world,” said Glimcher. “That’s a first for an Israeli.”
Rovner’s earlier work had been exhibited in 1997 at PaceMcGill, the gallery’s photo division, and after she moved to New York, she had a mid-career show at the Whitney Museum of American Art in July of 2002. Called “The Space Between,” the exhibit consisted of photos, many of which were blurred and out of focus, suggesting their universal nature, and videos that emphasized repetitive patterns — like her signature work, “Mutual Interest (1997)” a two-screen projection of a flock of moving birds that might also be seen as a squadron of bombers. Also screened was her 48-minute video “Border,” a fiction work using documentary footage shot at the Israeli-Lebanese border. Showing the comings and goings of a high-ranking commander in the Israeli army and the artist herself, “Border” was a literal and metaphoric evocation of a number of couplings and oppositions: man/woman, real/fake, the desire to know/the desire not to know.
Critical reaction to the Whitney retrospective was mixed. Many reviewers noted her potential but contended that her work was not mature enough to sustain such a large and important an exhibit.
With nearly a year free of commercial demands after the Biennale, Rovner shifted her base of operations to her farm in the Valley of Ayalon, just off the road between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, to assemble the new show. The technology of the new work is not visible; the levels are extreme, taking an army of people to get images into their final form. All are computer-generated from films and video, put into computers and manipulated. What is seen is simply Rovner and a group of her friends — walking around in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv or on her farm.
In one, Rovner herself walks in a spiral and disappears — revealing once again her message about the individual as emblematic. A flip-book of this image has been made into an invitation to the current show, which features a series of video installations in 14 vitrines, similar to something one might find in archeological museums. In one, viewers approach a waist-high stone dry well with projections inside, simultaneously suggesting both biblical and modern themes.
Though Rovner claims her work is neither political nor religious, she is at work on a project that incorporates both elements: A wall for a new building at Yad Vashem to open next year. Designed by Moshe Safdie, the space is a long triangular time-line, about six meters high, and Rovner was commissioned to design a piece that would portray Jewish life as it was in Europe before the war for the entrance. To this end, she has incorporated documentary footage into a video projection of a handmade Yiddish map of Europe.
“Working at Yad Vashem, I am reminded how humanity went off track in a horrible way,” said Rovner. “The phenomenon exists in many places. How can I not feel something? But in my work I always try to mix in the common human denominator.”
Regina Weinreich, the author of “Kerouac’s Spontaneous Poetics” and editor of “Kerouac’s Book of Haikus,” is co-producer/director of the documentary “Paul Bowles: The Complete Outsider.”