Time Is Not Linear: Q+A with Michal Rovner
Michal Rovner is an artist whose video art engages film, sculpture, installation, printmaking, and associates with politics, science and archeology. The main works in "Topography," Michal Rovner's current show at Pace Gallery in New York, are projected on slabs of black limestone, whose gaps, in some pieces, are bridged seamlessly by the void of slightly swaying cypresses. The landscapes behind the trees are mostly hash, desolate stony hill where groups of tiny human figures move around. At first glance, from a distance, you might think these video works are paintings or etchings. They continue Rovner's attempts to take apart reality and build her own.
Rovner is best known for her works that feature unidentifiable human figures in perpetual motion. Sometimes they are her subjects, as in Time Left , where tens of thousands of matchsticks march in an endless circuit of four walls. Sometimes they are her material, as in Data Zone , where they group and regroup like micro-organisms in a Petri dish, or they are presented as indecipherable primitive text projected on old papers and stones, as in her works for "In Stone," her exhibition at Pace in 2004. And in a few of her recent works, they have been enlarged to gigantic ghostly silhouettes. In this latest series, cypress is the central element, and her trademark human figures often merge into the landscape.
Based in New York and Israel, Rovner's works often push against order and disorder of time and space while addressing her persistent concern about human dynamics and fragility, about boundaries between connection and isolation.
CAMILLE XIN What were your first ideas or sketches for this series?
MICHAL ROVNER The first idea I had came after a long walk in the old city in Jerusalem at dawn. I was leaning on a stone fence looking towards Mount Olive. The wind was blowing and suddenly I noticed those old cypress trees swaying, and in them I saw the motion, the instability, the tension, the way they stood like a fence between my side and the mountain, and the way they divided the landscape. And then I erased the landscape and started with the cypress.
XIN Mediterranean cypress is also called the "graveyard tree" and often associated with death or the underworld. Because of its tendency to bend with even the slightest of breezes, it is also called the "drama tree."
ROVNER "Drama tree?" That's interesting. Sometimes they look to me like brush-strokes of the landscape. In my final work I strip the background landscape, as well as all the leaves and details of the trees.
XIN In most of the cases, only the contour of the swaying trees is left. By doing so, it might look like you take out the drama, but in fact you heighten it. Even if we might not make out they are cypresses, we still feel the sense of grieving and mourning.
ROVNER Actually, we also make other associations with the cypresses. Anyway, I only want to keep the basic—the shape, the movement and the energy.
XIN Just like you did with your tiny human marks. Their simple and ritualistic motion creates a hypnotic effect. When they might seem disappearing because they are so alike, they actually grow on you. Do you always look at things from a distance?
ROVNER Although I often take long shots, from afar, I look at them very intensely and very closely. Sometimes I feel that there is so much information and so many details that we could become somewhat blinded by them. I'm trying to reach another layer underneath.
XIN Sometimes the less we see, the more we are aware. Extreme condensation can be very powerful. I think by taking away the identities of these human marks, you also raise them to the general level of humanity. Everybody can relate to them.
ROVNER Yes. They are from real life. I always start from reality, real places and real people, and sometimes from very specific and historical contexts, but my final work is not directly about them.
XIN You are not a documenter. You create art out of reality. From the way you think and the way you work, I think you're an Abstract Expressionist at heart. Abstraction makes your representation more powerful. Even in your early photographs, you don't like your images too direct. You re-processed them so many times that they look like Abstract-Expressionist paintings.
ROVNER In "Current," my site-specific video installations for Ruhrtriennale this year, the imprint of coal coking on the huge wall of Mischanlage (a former industrial plant once used to mix coal) was like beautiful abstract paintings. I was inspired and tried not to cover them with projections, but to keep the residue of life in those paintings.
XIN Yes, I saw it on YouTube. They look like Abstract-Expressionist video paintings. However, "Topography" looks to me are most mature, in every way.
ROVNER I always love abstract art. I think that good art is an abstraction of reality. For me, I like to keep some presence of reality within the abstraction.
XIN Is this series, "Topography," about landscape?
ROVNER It's not just about landscape but it starts from the landscape. In some pieces, there are only the cypresses, and the limestone is the background, the landscape. In other pieces, I filmed rocky hillsides, which I mixed with the cypress, and these are most of the cases in this show. But in Har Lavan  and Har Zeitim , I kept Mount Olive as the background, but erased part of the details. I used human marks to recreate the part of landscape I erased. Looking from a distance, Har Lavan looks like a still of a landscape, but when you come closer, you will see hundreds of human figures interacting with each other.
XIN Did you film those human figures for this series?
ROVNER Most of them are visitors I filmed in the Louvre Museum last year. Some of them are from Russia from years ago. I like to mix footage from different places.
XIN Although you erase the specifics, the process of your recording and erasing is very specific.
ROVNER Yes. I'm very specific when making my work. A fracture of a second, the speed of the motion, the specifics of the material, the level of light, the texture of the surface, etc. For example, for the "Helix" series in this exhibition, I don't like the pixel of the LCD screen, so I asked to disassemble the LCD and insert Japanese paper inside the screen, and now they are works on paper.
XIN Group dynamics is a main theme of your work. What do you think is the key difference between individual and group? Did your experience in the army have any positive or negative influence?
ROVNER There always is the issue of the individual and the group and the question to what degree you can keep your individuality within the group or whether you take on the group's characteristics as your individuality. It is a delicate balance. Of course when you are in an army the challenge is harder.
XIN Human marks have become your signature, your language and your subject. They are like the molecules of our consciousness or emotion. Was there an epiphanic moment when you realized that they were going to be the building blocks of your work?
ROVNER I haven't thought about it. Well, in 2001, I collaborated with Philip Glass on a short film, Notes. I made compositions of human figures moving on five rows like musical notes.
XIN Those human figures are in small size but still have details. When did you erase all the details and reduce them to human marks?
ROVNER It was after September 11, while I was preparing for the last piece, Time Left , for my Whitney exhibition. I wanted to do something with people, together, going through a timeline. I filmed groups of people holding hands, walking. And then I decided to reduce them to a size of text and strip off the specifics. But you can still identify some differences between them.
XIN Specifics elicit more stories, but you are not interested in traditional narration. The motion in your video is mostly minimized and repetitive. How do you see narration and the power of repetition?
ROVNER I'm not interested in the specifics of the story. I'm looking for a pattern. I call my works "situations." Sometimes you might not be aware exactly where it begins or ends. When you see it the second time, you might see something else in it. The repetition is for the purpose of accumulation, not necessarily to make it look mechanical.
XIN Exactly. The use of repetition is found in many forms of art. Avro Part's music and Pina Bausch's dance are good examples of illustrating the power of repetition.
ROVNER Repetition is part of the rhythm and pulse of my work. You can find repetition in every human ceremony, even in simple actions.
XIN Such as prayer. Human history, in a way, is repetition, but each time, there is some difference. Now, I'm curious how you first started to work with stones?
ROVNER I've been collecting old stones for many years. Living in Israel, I often see archeological engravings on stones. I'm always moved when I think of that moment, when someone at a far point in time had an urge to communicate to an unknown future and to leave a permanent mark. I wanted to stretch the timeline to the beginning of text, to have a dialogue on the notion of permanent and temporary, and to use human figures as notations.
XIN Makom  is your only project with just stones, no video projection. It looked great in the Napoleon court outside of the Louvre. How did you build it?
ROVNER Makom started with collecting stones of dismantled old ruined houses in Israel and Palestine. I worked with Israeli and Palestinian stonemasons. I decided not to cut the stones to the same size, but to find a way to fit the irregularly shaped stones together. We built two structures, one whole and one ruined. Each stone was numbered, so they could be disassembled and reassembled anywhere. It was built in my field in Israel and then it went to the Louvre.
XIN So it fills in your creative process of construction, deconstruction and reconstruction. In your past works, stones were put on the ground or on a stand. In this exhibition of "Topography," what made you finally hang the stones up, like a canvas?
ROVNER I had a few stones in my studio. When I put them together, I saw it. I'm probably also inspired by the endless walks I took at the Louvre, in the area of Mesopotamia. Seeing those wall paintings that were disassembled from Babylon and then reassembled.
XIN In this exhibition, I notice Sdakim [Cracks, 2012] is the only piece with narration. There are six bigger human silhouettes that look like medieval priests wandering about, observing each other, extending their hands as if trying to make a contact, bending to weep. Correct me if I'm wrong, I think that the idea of cracked time was first developed for the exhibition at the Madre Museum of Napoli in 2009, but with only two of the figures extending their hands and lines and lines of trudging human marks in the background.
ROVNER These silhouettes are actually coming from one woman from a group video. I have been using this figure in different compositions.
XIN Now it seems to me that she's trying to make connection with herself as much as with anybody else. The variation of this image appears in many of your works. For example, Contact , two silhouettes extending their hands to each other in a huge projection on the entire facade of a building in Jaffa. It's stunningly beautiful, haunting and mystic as people come in and out of the building.
ROVNER I like to project my work on the street. People react differently when they are unprepared to see artwork.
XIN After that, you made a site-specific piece, Fresco Louvre , in which seven silhouettes were projected on the ancient walls of the medieval fortress under the Louvre. The cracks slowly appear and disappear in different parts of the wall.
ROVNER Yes, with a bigger wall, 19½ feet high and 82 feet wide. I wanted to create a dialogue between more people, like a theater.
XIN In the current exhibition at Pace Gallery, Sdakim, you erase the endless marching human marks in the background and project it on a much smaller stone [35 by 107 inches] that hangs on the wall like a canvas. Finally you let this image stand alone after it was shown in the bigger context of museums, Louvre's medieval fortress, or in the contrast of night street. It conveys the same message and carries the same weight.
ROVNER Interesting. I haven't thought about it like that.
XIN Why does the theme of cracked time appear over and again?
ROVNER Time for me is material, like human marks, places and light. In my works, time is not linear—the past, the present and imaginary future layers are communicating simultaneously.
XIN I just realized that your endless moving human marks are the flowing of time. I guess most of your work is about our relationship with time?
ROVNER Sounds good.
XIN Your human marks often appear coming from nowhere and walking towards nothingness. But ever since your Louvre exhibition last year, you started to let them land on a concrete landscape. I sensed some changes in you.
ROVNER You do?
XIN It seemed that a profound experience has been changing your emotional state slightly. I feel like you see something positive after death and find some peace with it.
ROVNER I often felt how fragile and breakable our existence is. When you witness actual death, it is hard but in some ways it can make you stronger.