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Art In Conversation

Michal Rovner with Phong Bui

Michal Rovner, Makom II, 2007-2008. installed at PaceWildenstein Gallery. Copyright Michal Rovner, Courtesy PaceWildenstein Gallery. Photographic copyright: Ardon Bar Hama
Michal Rovner, Makom II, 2007-2008. installed at PaceWildenstein Gallery. Copyright Michal Rovner, Courtesy PaceWildenstein Gallery. Photographic copyright: Ardon Bar Hama

Right after the completion of the artist’s latest large-scale structure, Makom II, which will be on view at PaceWildenstein’s 22 Street location until March 15th, 2008, Michal Rovner welcomed Rail Publisher Phong Bui to her downtown loft/studio to discuss her life and work.

Phong Bui (Rail): Camera Obscura School of Art was a school of photography, cinema, and television which you founded with Arie Hammer in 1978, while going to school for two years at Tel Aviv University to study cinema, television, and philosophy, then another four years at Bezalel Academy, where you received a BFA in 1985. What sort or work did you do then, and were there particular artists, photographers or painters whose work you had a strong affinity with at the time?

Portrait of the artist. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.
Portrait of the artist. Pencil on paper by Phong Bui.

Rovner: They were mostly pictures that I took of landscapes, farm scenes, and other things while I was traveling, but the teachers didn’t like them because they said they were too morbid; I didn’t know what morbid meant at the time, but what’s wrong with being morbid anyway? They were class assignments, so I can’t say I did anything that interesting then, and I was required to talk about it, but I always felt strongly that when you have a desire to do something, you shouldn’t verbalize too much because if you do, you get to the end of it before it even started. In any case, one day I found the book The Lines of My Hand by Robert Frank in the library, then I thought about The Americans and I said, “This is my favorite photographer!” And a friend said to me, “but you haven’t seen them all!” I said, “I don’t have to see them all, this is it—here’s something, you know. . . just coming out of a very deep core, a place that is intense, tough, poetic, honest, and with a kind of authority over reality, everything is solid, yet fragile and free....”

Rail: So his work had an immediate impact on you!

Rovner: Yeah, mentally and emotionally, yet strangely enough not in terms of photography. At that moment, his work inspired me to want to write more than anything else.

Rail: What sort of writing did you do and what did it do for you?

Rovner: They were just for myself, notes and impressions of my observations of daily life and events that were happening. What that did for me was make clear that I have in me the drive to communicate, the ability to rearrange things, verbally, visually, and to translate them from reality into something else.

Rail: It must be very difficult for an artist in Israel to make work (I know quite a few—half of them are there because they had strong commitments to their families and for other personal reasons, while others had to get away from there to advance their work) without the overt emotion which often leads to sentimentality deriving directly from that kind of experience. I mean on one hand, they live in a land that echoes a tremendous sense of ancient history, and on the other, they’re trying to reach out for contemporary relevance in terms of issues of security, boundaries, the lack of natural resources and so on. Not to mention that every opinion is heavily polarized. How do you negotiate yours?

Rovner: I think to be involved emotionally is a good thing to start with, and being drawn into daily life is equally important. But if you are trapped by it then it can be a problem. In other words, you have to have your viewpoint: do you see where it begins and ends? Or do you see it as an ongoing conflict that has been going on not just in Israel but in other places? There are news broadcasts every half an hour that you need to be updated on to keep up with reality, and that is part of life in Israel. So what you have to do if you’re an artist is to take that reality as great material to work with. And the past is not something you have to admire or feel so holy about, and even if you are aware of all the lives before you, all the layers of history, the footnotes of people who came before you, you still don’t have to stand speechless before them, partly because the past is really another story about your own existence. On the other hand, where life and death are near to each other at all times, things are so fragile, so breakable, so dramatic, yet so seductive in some strange ways. It’s like having an affair with a difficult person; you can’t break it off so easily. So some artist’s works are very much about reacting to that situation and then there are artists who come to America and don’t want anything to do with Israel. They deny their past identities, cut off ties with their previous histories, but that doesn’t quite give them assurance for making good work either.

Rail: Beckett once said he preferred to live in wartime France than Ireland in peace. The same can be said of Joyce and many others. In some cases, the more you get away from your own roots, the more intensified your relationship to them becomes. I haven’t yet dealt with my own situation since I left Vietnam in 1979.

Rovner: You know it’s just a backdrop. It doesn’t mean that it’s the only reality you can relate to— every reality you live in, and are familiar with, is under your own constant reassessment. It’s not something you have to get away from necessarily. Some materials are from it, but the work is not about it.

Rail: What is the first thing that you did when you came to New York in 1987?

Rovner: When I came to New York the first thing I did was write articles about arts and culture for a weekend magazine Yediot Aharonot, an equivalent of the New York Times in Israel. (I was broke and needed a job that could pay the rent, so I called up the editor who was a good acquaintance.) I wrote about the Pink Triangle, about Pena Bausch, Robert Wilson, I even wrote about Prince’s three successive concerts: at the Madison Square Garden on the first night, the second night in Roseland, and then people said there was another concert the next night in another place so I went, because I wanted to compare them. It was amazing how he pulled off three performances, completely different from one to another.

Rail: Then around 1990-92 you co-wrote the scripts with Robert Frank on his two films, C’est Vrai! (One Hour) which is literally a one-hour trip to and through the Lower East Side, without editing……

Rovner: Yeah. It’s one-hour of uninterrupted shooting. It’s intense. We had to run from one place to another to make sure that people were there when the camera was coming. I liked it, it was really something different and the result was a condensed reality. And then there was Last Supper

Rail: Which was a beautiful and strange fable, taking place in an empty lot in Harlem, about a book-signing reception for a writer who never shows up. (I also saw a short film by Jonas Mekas, a filming of the making of Last Supper.) How did you get to know Robert Frank?

Rovner: During 1984-85, I used to come with Arie to New York to look for photographers who could come and teach at our school in Tel-Aviv, while trying to create a credit agreement with SVA (School of Visual Arts) and Pratt Institute. We were having these meetings with many people and one of them asked us, “Who do you want to come and teach in Israel?” Different names came up and then, as a joke, I said, “How about Robert Frank?” It didn’t occur to me that it could be a real thing because he was my hero, but we did call him up a few days later and went to meet him at his house, and it was a very strong moment. We became very close friends and then we invited him to come to Israel twice.

Rail: Let’s jump forward a little bit. In the context of 9/11, which led to the invasion of Iraq on March 18, 2003 (it’s hard to believe that it’s been five years since then), and given the fact that it has had different kinds of significance, perhaps for both of us, just because we’re a bit more familiar with war-torn experience than most, I thought your show at the Whitney was a very somber affair. I remember clearly seeing Time Left, an installation with projected images of 28 seemingly unending rows of silhouetted figures holding hands while moving slowly around the perimeter. Through your use of repetition, it evokes this hypnotic sense of healing, or even serenity. I wonder if you could retell the genesis of that piece, and your feelings during the interval between 9/11 and the exhibit?

Rovner: I was supposed to leave for Amsterdam on the morning of September 11th. My assistant called Federal Express to ask why the ticket hadn’t arrived and they said there’s been an accident involving a plane crash at one of the Twin Towers. So we immediately went to the roof and stayed, from the beginning to the end. It was a very strong experience. I’m predisposed to echoes of violence, but to witness it here in New York and in such a voltage, that was something else. It was totally unexpected. I was watching CNN for days and days, seeing all the people in the street, and experiencing everything. I met a woman in the street who lived right next to the Towers and could not go back to her apartment and I invited her to stay at my place. It was like being together with a stranger on a boat on a stormy sea. After two months, I left for Israel. When I landed, I couldn’t wait to get home to my farm and turn on CNN . I was sitting for two weeks straight at home. I didn’t go out, didn’t care about the farm, the neighbors or anything else. People asked to come and visit me and I said, “I’m not ready yet.” And you know, I was with America, completely, during that whole time. It was very interesting. Then, when I was asked to do something new, for the Whitney exhibition, I thought of it from two opposite perspectives: “Where is time? Time left.” (I mean, like, “Where is Michal? Oh, Michal just left.”) And/or “There is still time left.”

Rail: It can be read both ways.

Rovner: Exactly. Time left, time left, and time left. I also wanted to do something that had to do with a common denominator between people and with togetherness, and also wanted to do it in an almost child-like, illustrative way. At the same time I was thinking, “Why do you have to hold hands with somebody, and to protect each other? It’s good to be together, but what is out there that you have to be together against?” There were all these questions about the good and bad. But also, I wanted it to be like a continuous, unbreakable, uninterrupted line of movement, like a live machine. Even at night, when the piece was later installed at the Venice Biennale, I asked the technical staff not to turn off the computer. I mean the projectors were off, but not the computer, so they could keep walking.

Rail: Undoubtedly, without being overtly political, you’re creating images that hover in a liminal space—between inside and outside, real and unreal, life and death, and so on. I had in mind your first film, Border (1996), in which you employed all the techniques of a documentary—hand-held cameras, interviews with local residents and with the soldiers.

Rovner: And the commander being the main character.

Rail: Right. Plus your use of editing, reworking the footage overlaid with different kind of sounds such as gun fire, helicopters, wind blowing, and so on, all of which made the whole perception of the border so ambiguous. Were you aware of American avant-garde film at the time, especially the structuralist filmmakers Hollis Frampton, Ernie Gehr, and Michael Snow? And how did your film come about?

Rovner: No. I wasn’t. I had dinner one night in New York with some friends—a curator from Beirut, an artist from another place, from Lebanon, an art historian from Syria, and a Chinese friend. And while we were cooking together, Israel was invading Lebanon. There was this conflict in me between being an Israeli and seeing Israel invade Lebanon. Two days later I arrived in Israel. I decided to go to the border and to make something. I made a banner of flags, which had many X’s on them, and each X was a person and it was printed equally on both sides, for both sides of the fence. I went to the border to put them exactly where the army was stationed, and where people would cross from one place to the other. The reason I started to make video was in order to document the project. Then I went back again because I really had the urge to make another piece for the other side of this border. The area is called “The Good Fence,” and my work was a long, semi- transparent banner, where you could see the figures hovering in space. And while I was hanging the banner, the shooting started, and we saw soldiers running. So I told the crew to stop filming my project, and to start filming what was going on. That’s how I began making a film. Eventually, I met the general who was in charge of them. I said to him “I really want to film again, and I want to put this flag up again, which the army took down. Would you allow me to put it up again? It’s important to me.” Then I said, “Can this be my gallery?” And he said, “This will be your gallery. We need art here too.” We were partly using each other — I just wanted to do my work, and here was a guy who could let me do that, and he was very intrigued by the fact that I could make my own reality. Eventually, the General left the army and joined the Geneva initiative, which is an initiative to create dialogue with Palestinians, and create peace in the region.

Rail: So that was how your interest in making film began?

Rovner: Yeah, I just learned while doing it. I worked on it for one year. Then I started to make it like an opera. There are five chapters, and everything in this film repeats like a loop. The gate opens, the birds appear like the chorus, all the dialogues are made up completely. I cut them with scissors, changed what he said to me and what I said to him.

Rail: How would you describe your use of repetition?

Rovner: I always loved repetition. To see something again and again— it’s a very basic movement in life, you repeat something to make it stronger. Like in a prayer. Like in lovemaking. I think when you repeat something, you’re starting to get to another level of its nuances, like in music. But more importantly, I would say that from the beginning I was never in the business of telling stories. Even in the film, there is a story but there is also no story. You can connect the beginning to the end, you can put them in a loop, you can start any minute, and there is escalation, it’s natural, you know. It accumulates some tension, and that tension seems to need to be released, but when it is—you realize that that’s not it. When you talk about repetition, the images look like they’re repeating, but they’re not. It’s a different degree of nuance. There is a lot of again and again and again and again, again and again becomes not exactly again and again. But then there still is a lot of again and again.

Rail: Comparisons have been made between your constructed imagery and the work of Giacometti, which I’m not so sure of. The blurriness around the edges between forms intensifies the spatial ambiguity in their relationship to the surrounding environment. I mean in spite of Giacometti’s own anxiety which stems from the second World War, he worked from direct observation, as he said, “to extend his seeing experience.” I’d prefer to think of your work differently, especially with your use of repetition, and the projected rows of figures on stone tablets from your last show Fields, which at first glance appeared like hieroglyphs…

Rovner: Like a text.

Rail: Exactly. They remind me of Henri Michaux’s drawings from the mid to late ‘50s more than anything else. I mean the way in which the temporal and spatial mutations subtly shifted from his Alphabet to Movement series.

Rovner: That’s very true. I always love the lightness of his marks, because they’re residues of reality, but at the same time not. They’re marks that reality has left, but not necessarily accounted for. Similarly, I think my work is about creating images that come from reality while breaking the connections with their specificity.

Rail: I also feel there are some compelling similarities and differences between yours and Shirin Nashat’s work. While you were initially trained as a photographer, Shirin began as a painter. Both of you eventually discovered film and video as a necessary means to expand your vocabularies. However, in Shirin’s films, the pictorial language of painting remains quite intact. I mean the ways in which she utilizes both the depth and shallow space according to mass and movement, often with the centralized image in the composition; whereas in your own depiction of space, the image tends to adhere to the frontal plane, therefore becoming more uniformly flat. Ultimately, Shirin’s political implications, however poetic they may appear, are more legible. Your’s is generated by abstraction.

Rovner: You know, for both of us, the relationship between the video and the moving image at some point became very accessible, and it’s very tempting to use it, because it is so easy to incorporate, in a way. My fascination, really, is with a living thing. Whether it is a little group of people, a group of birds, flies, or whatever, it’s always about how it functions in and as a group, without any evaluation or sense of hierarchy. But the political aspect is there because I’m using it in my work, yet I’m dealing more with the pattern of things that have been going on, and will be going on for a long, long time. I mean there are repetitions in history, destruction and creation, birth and death, etc. It’s like a wave, it comes and goes and comes and goes... and so on.

Rail: With a certain effortlessness, once the work is done.

Rovner: Yes. Like a ballerina, when she dances, even if she does the most complicated movement, it cannot work if she communicates the effort or labor of it. The idea is that you practice endlessly and at a certain point you just have to let it go and trust that it will be okay.

Rail: When and how did this transformation take place from the ephemeral lightness of what you’ve been doing for a long time to this undeniably three-dimensional structure, or rather a monument that is monumental? It’s sixty tons made of over 1,000 building stones that you’ve been collecting from different places and locations in Israel and Palestine. Is it transportable?

Rovner: I wanted to create the space for a video, for an exhibition of outdoor sculptures, and I thought I would make a building-like structure. But when I was offered to make a maquette, and to work with an architect, I did not want to do either. I just have to follow the image that I have in my mind, even though it’s not exactly that clear. You see, myself and my ten assistants have to go through a lot of changes and revisions in order to reach the final structure that I felt was close enough to my initial vision. I am lucky that I don’t always know. I know and I don’t know, you know? So I started to do this and that, and when I changed my mind about the position of the slit, people who work with me became concerned and started to give me proposals, and it just created confusion… At one point I brought another stone and I put it in the center and the crack corresponded with it.

Rail: The one sitting on the ground in the middle of Makom?

Rovner: Yes.

Rail: In a way you already had a sense of how the scale of it should be?

Rovner: I had a feeling of its scale, its presence, or its personage you could even say, but not how it would look exactly.

Rail: Scale is much more of an informal system of generating size categorization. It’s certainly more visceral than proportion.

Rovner: I agree.

Rail: Even though the construction of Makom appeals to our sense of familiarity with the ancient past, without, of course, being specific about a particular place and time, the most subtle yet striking feature is the vertical gap, which runs from top to bottom, from the center of the front wall. It’s big enough for the viewer to see partially through to the opposite side, but obviously too small for anyone to walk through. In addition you created another small crack on the left wall that functions in the same way. The two elements, I felt, while enhancing the spatial tension, also created this greater feeling of mystery. I think it would be incorrect to call it a device, but certainly it’s a pictorial application that occurs more often in painting than in sculpture or architecture. For instance, the vertical “zip” in Barnett Newman’s paintings.

Rovner: Yeah, “occur” is how it happened. It wasn’t an architectural, calculated manner of action. If you work with the maquette, it’s a different story.

Rail: Having watched the DVD, which documents the whole process of making Makom, what was left over after the de-installation was a mound of dirt or remnants that looked exactly like the stone lying on the ground inside.

Rovner: Glad you saw it, the leftovers and the absence.

Rail: Is there a connection between your early photographs of Bedouin houses with Makom?

Rovner: That was so long ago. I used to go to this mountaintop that runs along the border to take pictures of this house on the other side near Bethlehem. I went every weekend for months. I was obsessed with that image. And my husband would have to take me there every time. He would say “You did it already, why again?”

Rail: So the repetition had already begun there.

Rovner: Now come to think of it, yes. My husband said, “What’s there?” and I said “I’m looking at this house, and I wonder is there anybody out there. Maybe there is somebody. Maybe not. Maybe it’s just a house. Maybe it’s just a form. Maybe when I’m looking at it, someone is looking back at me. But maybe not.” And when Sylvia Wolf was about to write the catalogue essay for the Whitney exhibit, she asked me to find something that was the closest to me emotionally. And it only took me a second to realize that that desire to do it again and again was more important than anything else. I gave her that image of the house.

Rail: In a way Makom is really your paying homage to that very place. But you do it in a way that retains the greater mystery, because you don’t want to share it with anybody else. Nobody else can get in.


Phong Bui


The Brooklyn Rail

MAR 2008

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