April 24, 2008
Israeli’s ‘Makom’ sculptures merge art and archaeology
In the quiet, pastoral village of Kfar Shmu'el, not far from Jerusalem, Michal Rovner's studio is an inspiring place to create art. The large, white building, with its high ceilings and minimalist decor, has several dark workrooms full of computers, screens, projectors and various video installations. |
In the center of the building is a small kitchen, where the sun streams in from a large terrace. A plate of avocados and pears arranged neatly on a shelf are the most vivid colors in a sea of soft pastels made even brighter by the afternoon rays.
Outside, a row of heavy stones with unique sizes, shapes and colors stand guard at the entrance like mute soldiers. These static objects bear the weight of numerous, paradoxical connotations within Israeli society -- from construction and deconstruction to violence and peace -- that often underlie Rovner's art.
"I have been collecting stones for many years for this or that excuse," Rovner says. "I love them because you can't help feeling the energy of the stones and the residue from the timeline each stone carries."
And perhaps it is this penchant that inspired her most recent creations: "Makom I," Rovner's first outdoor sculpture, and "Makom II," a 60-ton stone structure that is currently on exhibit at the Pace Wildenstein Gallery in New York. Rovner will be in Los Angeles to discuss her work at the Getty Center on April 27.
Although she has a diverse portfolio that includes more than 40 solo exhibitions, it wasn't until Rovner was honored with a midcareer retrospective at New York's Whitney Museum of Contemporary Art in 2002 that she really began to gain international recognition. The first Israeli artist to ever show at the Whitney, Rovner's works in "The Space Between" included photographs and video installations.
A year later, she was given the honor of representing Israel in a solo exhibition at the 2003 Venice Biennale to great acclaim.
The event, which has presented group exhibitions from a number of other Israeli artists in recent years -- including sculptor Carmit Gil, painter Avner Ben Gal, photographer Efrat Shivly, sound and light artist Michal Helfman, video artists Amit Goren and Doron Solomons and installation artist Nahum Tevet -- marked the beginning of trend in the international community to take Israeli artists more seriously.
Yet, although more and more Israeli artists are enjoying some success abroad, the numbers are still relatively small. Few others have the notoriety that Rovner enjoys.
At the Venice Biennale, Rovner's provocative video installation titled, "Against Order? Against Disorder?" depicted thousands of miniscule human figures moving around the four walls of a dark room. Hand in hand, their constant but erratic motion is a mesmerizing testament to both continuity and change.
Best known for her work with photography, video and multimedia, Rovner has worked with a wide range of mediums throughout her prolific career.
"A former curator once wrote that my work defies classification, and I think this a beautiful way of putting it," she says, picking up a photograph of "Makom I," the first of two monumental stone sculptures that cross the lines between sculpture, architecture and archaeology. "I wanted to make a work with pieces of Israeli and Arabic houses that employed stone masons from Israel and Palestine who worked together side by side," she explains.
In "Makom I," the smaller of the two installations, two tiny windows allow the observer to peer in at a ghostly, white figure that moves its outstretched arms up to its head in a gesture of woe and then splays them back out again. Rovner decided to make "Makom II" larger, and rather than making windows, she placed a large gap in one of the square walls to add an element of fragility.
This stands in stark contrast to the durability and permanence of the stone itself. Inside the structure, a large stone that shares the same gap on one side mirrors its gigantic outer shell.
In order to complete the structures, Rovner gathered more than 10,000 stones in the field just below her house, which is up the hill from her studio.
"I did not want to cut or chip the stones in order to make them fit. I wanted to put them together like a puzzle, and that meant finding the precise size and shape for each space in order to complete the square walls," Rovner says.
She points out that the work was like that of an archaeologist sifting through ruins, and it was especially emotional to work with stones of various ages that came from all over Israel and the West Bank.
Today, piled in the periphery of Rovner's sprawling garden amongst blooming wildflowers, olive trees and vegetables, the leftover stones await Rovner's next project.
"Makom II" took many weeks to complete, and once it was finished, Rovner meticulously marked each stone with a Hebrew letter and a number using permanent paint. This label recalls an ancient language that blends their old origins with a new location.
The fact that the stones were constructed in Israel out of old buildings and houses and then deconstructed and shipped abroad to finally be reconstructed in New York adds another layer of meaning to the structure.
"Taking these stones out of their context in Israel and putting them in New York revealed something even stronger," says Rovner, who also has a studio in New York, where she has worked since 1988. "Something even more intense was revealed with the geographical change. If only stones could talk," she says wistfully, contemplating the complex past, present and future of each of her chosen stones.
The interest in shifting landscapes and changing mediums is reflected in Rovner's wide array of artistic creations. And although she is loath to categorize her work for fear of being pigeonholed, she will say that it always presents questions that invite the spectator to consider a new vantage point.
"The single thread that runs through different projects is an interest in the human living thing," she says. "My goal is to create a situation that will inspire people to change their point of view and see things differently -- even if it's only for a moment."
On Sunday, April 27, Michal Rovner will discuss "Makom I" and "Makom II" at the Getty Center at 4 p.m. in the Harold Williams Auditorium.