Michal Rovner: Particles of Reality

Montreal

Time Left (2002), installation view: Image courtesy the artist, the DHC Art Foundation, Montreal and PaceWildenstein, New York.Time Left (2002), installation view: Image courtesy the artist, the DHC Art Foundation, Montreal and PaceWildenstein, New York.

By Bill Clarke

Michal Rovner: Particles of Reality
DHC / Art Foundation
May 21 - Sept. 27, 2009

In a word: stunning. This retrospective by the New York-based Israeli artist was a haunting exhibition that combined video and sculpture in a way that felt timeless, and yet utterly contemporary.

Rovner’s work is based in science, and historical and archeological documentation. Although viewers may want to read the politics of her native land into the work, the artist seems more concerned with conveying a broader sense of human history and evolution, or some kind of primordial, shared memory. The exhibition opened with Data Zone (2003), an installation of Petri dishes arranged on laboratory tabletops. Videos projected inside the dishes show tiny groupings of human figures filmed from above, clumped together and devoid of any discerning features. Moving in rapid circles or undulating waves, they looked like strands of DNA or clusters of bacteria observed under a microscope. The effect was hypnotic, but unsettling. Viewers were reminded of humanity’s micro-orgasmic beginnings millions of years ago, but one also got the feeling that Rovner was inferring that human beings are also rather like a plague.

Culture Plate #7 (2003), wall-mounted video projection: Image courtesy the artist, the DHC Art Foundation, Montreal and PaceWildenstein, New York.Culture Plate #7 (2003), wall-mounted video projection: Image courtesy the artist, the DHC Art Foundation, Montreal and PaceWildenstein, New York.On the second floor of the gallery were a selection of sculptural works from the In Stone (2004) and Stones (2006-09) series. The display of the work suggested a natural history museum with its vitrines and dim lighting. Projected onto chunks of stone were barely discernable rows of human-like figures that suggest hieroglyphics or cave paintings. It took a moment for one’s eyes to register the faint, vibrating movement of the figures across the rough surfaces of the stones. Here, it was as if the artist has created a portal through which viewers could be transported back to primitive history.

A selection of short films on the DHC’s third floor provided viewers with insight into the artist’s process and documentation of some of her other projects mounted in other parts of the world. Clips from one of the artist’s overtly political works, The Good Fence (1996) were shown here. In this piece, the artist strung a set of banners depicting shadowy human silhouettes close to the Israeli/Lebanon border. At the end of the video, border guards are seen removing the installation.

Across from the DHC’s main space were the exhibition’s “showstoppers”. Culture Plate #7 (2003) is a larger, wall-mounted version of the Petri dishes at the start of the exhibit. Blown up to a bigger size, the masses of human figures moving in a frenzied swirl within the circular frame take on a tragicomic aspect. Despite all of the advancements made by science into genetics, the work reminded viewers that, in the end, humanity will remain enslaved to biology and the passage of time. Any attempt to master them is futile.

Closing the exhibition was the unforgettable Time Left (2003), an installation that lives up to the exhibition brochure’s description of it as an “epic” work. Projected on the four large walls of the space were rows upon rows of small, slowly marching figures that call to mind the exoduses, exiles and dislocations of masses of people that have occurred throughout human history. Viewers could easily lose themselves in the overwhelming power of this work as they tried to follow with their eyes the path of a single figure around the room. The fact that the work has no end prompts a sense of dread, claustrophobia and disorientation in viewers, like staring into a deep, dark abyss. The quietly droning electronic soundscape that accompanies the work adds to the sense of being surrounded by something ineffable and, ultimately, unknowable. Here, it felt as if the adage ‘time has no meaning’, was being proven true.