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Michal Rovner: Works
October 12, 2001–January 6, 2002

Michal Rovner

Red Earth Nun
, 1999
chromogenic print, 20 x 20 inches
Courtesy of Stephen Wirtz Gallery, San Francisco CA

On the Threshold of the Visible: The Photographs of Michal Rovner

Against a backdrop of escalating violence in the Middle East, Israeli-born Michal Rovner's blurry large-scale images of people and birds in some unidentified space transform the concept of border into much more than a geographical line. Rovner has carved out a zone in which conceptual and geo-graphical space is collapsed into a realm of the imagination.

Art historian Nicholas Mirzoeff has used the term "intervisuality" to connote a field of signification, a trait emblematic of Rovner's work. In the introduction to his anthology, Diaspora and Visual Culture: Representing Africans and Jews, Mirzoeff recognizes the need for a multiple viewpoint that is at once contradictory, polyphonic, and utopian. Mirzoeff notes that "the diasporic visual image is necessarily intertextual, in that the spectator needs to bring extratextual information to bear on what is seen within the frame in order to make full sense of it … both within and beyond the intent of the producer of that image."(1)

Accordingly, the viewer should consider Rovner's body of work in its totality. Comprising canvas, paper, and film, with paint, ink, computers, still and video cameras, her oeuvre defies classification by medium. In video installations, feature-length films, photographs, and paintings, Rovner has created images that hover in a liminal space: between inside and outside, fiction and reality, life and death. Undoubtedly informed by experiences of war over entitlement to homeland, Rovner's work connotes exile, migration, and displacement.

Shot in 1996 along the border between Israel and Lebanon, Rovner's first film, Border, uses footage from three sources: the artist herself, a professional camera crew, and the commander of the border. Employing all the trappings of a documentary - the cinéma vérité style of a hand-held camera, interviews with insiders such as local residents and soldiers, ambient sounds - Border is anchored to the border as a specific point in time and place. However, through extensive editing and reworking of footage on the computer and in the darkroom, as well as through layering and cutting sounds of gunfire, helicopter blades, and wind swooshing over the microphone, Rovner undermines any stable appropriation of the border as understandable space. Her use of the telephoto lens, which obliterates any sense of distance and three-dimensionality, contributes to a flattening of her images and, as Parveen Adams has noted, "achieve[s] a certain collapse of the relation of objects to space."(2) Adams further suggests that Rovner has created "a space without perspective, without a vanishing point, without a horizon, for the border interiorises the horizon within itself."(3) This kind of floating weightlessness has been a persistent element in Rovner's work for the past fifteen years.

For her multi-part photographic series One-Person Game Against Nature from the early 1990s, Rovner hired lean teenage boys to swim and float in the Dead Sea. The figures in the final photographs were reduced to primal imprints, barely recognizable as human beings. Suspended in emptied fields of color, the boys appear to be flying or falling. Rovner achieves her effect not only by photo-graphing her subjects from a great distance, sometimes directing them by phone from as far away as one kilometer, but also by manipulating her negatives and videotapes in a variety of ways. Sometimes Rovner rephotographs images from the television or computer monitor, or processes them through a copying machine. Other times, she rephotographs Polaroids, which she then colors and enlarges into her signature canvases or hazy, unfocused prints of birds in flight or hooded, stooped figures. Rovner's process is thus characterized by subtraction and erasure, in which the artist's distance from the original subjects increases with each generation of manipulation. As the artist herself has noted: "I make recordings of recordings and make different generations so you lose something on the way but you gain something else. Like life. I try to reduce them visually. I try to erase more than I record yet still be left with the minimum that is necessary."(4) The resulting sense of shrouded mystery and spirituality in Rovner's work leaves an indelible impression on viewers and reviewers alike.

Rovner's recent multi-channel video installation, Overhang, and Projection, Field 1, also feature spaces without perspective or horizon. While the majority of photographs included in this exhibition seem to be derived in some distant way from Overhang and Field 1, original still images do not exist. Field 1.3, Nun II, and Nun 7, included in the exhibition, are good examples of the collapse of space mentioned in reference to Border.

It is intriguing in this context to think of the artist's fascination with flight, which has been noted by several commentators. For instance, curator and author Sylvia Wolf identified Rovner's early photograph Flying Rabbit (1988) as "one of the first pictures in which she consciously tries to simulate flight."(5) Rovner herself has stated that flying is "about being taken out of context, being detached. It's about being in between … ."(6) Flight, like Rovner's unidentified borderland, is a zone of transition, between inside and outside, self and other, presence and absence. In short, flight is another metaphor for inbetweenness in Rovner's work. Her images are attempts to describe an ungraspable reality which lies somewhere between truth and fiction, on the threshold of the visible.

Such descriptions of Rovner's images bring to mind James Turrell's Ganzfeld installations, in which he creates perceptual fields where spatial difference is apparently erased, and where the experience of Euclidean dimensions is replaced by a sensation of floating adrift in a voluptuous and dimensionless sea of color. Turrell's personal reference point for this kind of installation is his experience as a pilot, particularly during flights when weather conditions create what are known as "lost horizons," or deceptive spatial illusions that tempt pilots to trust their eyes rather than their instrument panels. Turrell's intention is to create environments where "objective" seeing collides with imaginative vision, thus encouraging an experiential blurring of boundaries in his viewers.

Viewers of Rovner's work may experience a similar boundary blurring. Tate Gallery curator Frances Morris has described the effect as follows: "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 … to be experienced through imagination and memory."(7) Rovner's horizonless photographs create a gap between reference and inference in much the same way that Turrell's installations wreak havoc on the usually seamless interplay of experience and interpretation. Where the border should consist of a line dividing physical space, Rovner's images actually reformulate that space. Moreover, in some of her photographs, such as Falling in the Field and Line, a central line bisecting the picture plane only seems to add to the imagining of limitless space.

Their borders apparently dissolving, Rovner's photographs seem to fluctuate and gradually change, becoming images of uncertainty in their denial of focus. This approach to the photographic medium is in direct opposition to the presumption of veracity, an abiding aspect of our common understanding of photography. More than any other mimetic medium, photography is presumed to have an obvious relation to visible reality. In Rovner's work, this desire for verisimilitude is challenged in such a way that we are forced to rethink our relationship with borders as a particular geographic sign system.

In her recent book, Terra Infirma: Geography's Visual Culture, Irit Rogoff argues that in an age of forced migrations and contested borders, the language of geography is no longer able to represent the immense changes that have taken place in a postcolonial and postcommunist world. Instead, she looks to contemporary artists' approaches to issues of belonging to reflect the emotional geography of our world. Rogoff suggests that geography is located foremost in the field of vision. She observes that visual culture "designates an entire arena of visual representations which circulate in the field of vision establishing visibilities (and policing invisibilities), stereotypes, power relations, the ability to know and to verify: in fact they establish the very realm of 'the known.'"(8) Rogoff discusses Rovner's film Border at length, seeing the work as an important artistic intervention. While the issues and topographies of the Israel-Lebanon border may seem all too familiar from the nightly news, Rogoff nevertheless views Border as "struggling with the effort to bring the border into being, into vision, into straightforward acknowledgment."(9) In that film, as in her later work, Rovner uses a variety of formal and narrative techniques to convey the complexity of issues related to a particular region, a disputed borderland. The viewer is left feeling that the border itself cannot be conceived of, understood, conceptualized, or represented.

The same refusal to present us with a clear and focused image takes place in Rovner's still photographs. Suggesting the unavoidable relationship between sight and its failures, Rovner's photographs produce a structure of blindness that interrupts the authority of vision. Like her pink birds in flight, Rovner's geography knows no borders.

Andrea Inselmann
Independent Curator and Writer


1. Nicholas Mirzoeff, "Introduction," in Diaspora and Visual Culture: Representing Africans and Jews, ed. Nicholas Mirzoeff (London: Routledge, 2000), p. 7.

2. Parveen Adams, "Drive to the Border: Bordering the Drive," unpaginated manuscript from Death Drive: Contemporary Art and Psychoanalysis, a conference held at the Tate Gallery, London, 1998.

3. Adams, n.p.

4. Michal Rovner, quoted in Hunter Drohojowska Philp, "From Dislocation, Artistic Direction." Los Angeles Times, 15 June 1997.

5. Sylvia Wolf, Michal Rovner (Chicago: The Art Institute of Chicago, 1993), p. 13.

6. Michal Rovner, quoted in Los Angeles Times, 15 June 1997.

7. Frances Morris, Artnow 10: Michal Rovner (London: Tate Gallery, 1997), n.p.

8. Irit Rogoff, Terra Infirma: Geography's Visual Culture (London: Routledge, 2000), p. 20.

9. Rogoff, p. 138.

This exhibition was curated by Dana Self, curator of the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, Kansas City, MO.