Last year, photographer and video artist Michal Rovner was given a full-dress exhibition at the Whitney Museum. An entire floor was devoted to her video images and photographs of haunting, silhouetted figures, mostly of birds and men, engaged in crowded flight patterns or trudging through barren landscapes. Each of her creatures seems oddly alone, even in large groupings. Rovner's camera gives them dignity in a theatrical sort of way, as if some of Cecil B. DeMille's background minions were suddenly put center-frame.
Rovner has had major installations of her video work at the Tate in London and the Stedelijk in Amsterdam, and in 2000 a short version of a large project, Overhanging, appeared in the Whitney Biennial on a program with several other artists. Rovner was carving a unique place for herself in the ever-expanding field of video installation artists.
Rovner's work, the product of painstaking digital editing that whittles away recognizable individual traits from whatever living object she is filming, announces a new voice that is at home with abstraction and lyric beauty, traits not often associated with the hard-edged, identity- and gender-driven work so common in contemporary video. She seems to be breathing the spirits of Beckett and Giacometti, casting spareness and extreme individuality into a new system of socio-poetic art -- an artfulness infused with a political sensibility stemming from her lifelong experiences with conflict in her native Middle East. Though she wouldn't say this herself (she prefers ambiguity), the oddly shaped men in her videos, huddling, pacing, bowing on snowy hillsides, are stand-ins for her countrymen imagined in a utopian dance of quiet, yet profound reconciliation.
The New York critics didn't go for it. Reviewers dismissed her as not ready for such a major survey, or lumped her with "digital artists" who are thought to be more science than substance. Rovner's big break on Madison Avenue fizzled.
Fast-forward to this summer's Venice Biennale, and it seems that perhaps the critics were the ones who weren't ready. At every Biennale a buzz develops about a certain pavilion early on during the press preview and lines start to form. In 2001 it was Germany and Canada. This time around it was Israel. Rovner, whose main studio is in New York, was representing her native country. People came by the hundreds to see that strange and beautiful installation in the Israeli pavilion. By all rights, it should have won a prize -- though it was a commonplace in Venice that geopolitical events made such an award impossible. (The medal was won by Luxembourg, whose off-site pavilion on the Grand Canal hosted an installation by Su Mei-Tse.)
In the darkened chambers of Israel's angular, contemporary pavilion, Rovner presents an installation of several works that she collectively titled "Against Order? Against Disorder?" The showpiece was Time Left (2002), a monumental wall-to-wall installation of row after row of silhouetted figures marching by the hundreds of thousands toward an unnamed end, accompanied by the droning electronic music of Rea Mochiah. Are they prisoners condemned to an eternal repetition in some Sartrean void? Are they the survivors of an apocalyptic event, exhausted but hopeful for a new life? Perhaps they are simply pilgrims walking of their own accord towards a highly anticipated religious experience.
Like all wondrous, visually and intellectually arresting art, Rovner's installation lays out the form and allows room for mystery. We can't help but gasp at the beauty of it all even as we are daunted by what it might mean. The images fill the space in an immersive environment totally of the artist's invention. She offers an emotional wallop, raw and unencumbered. Only later, after emerging into the sunlight (in this case, Venice's intense sunlight) do we consider what it is "about."
In Venice, the national pavilions must reflect an ambition worthy of the context. Overly subtle presentations (such as the Robert Gober installation in the U.S. pavilion in 2001 or Candida Hofer's exhibition of photographs in this year's German pavilion) get lost in this competitive environment. In this regard, Rovner triumphs. Walking into her installation feels like a once-in-a-lifetime revelation.
On a landing between two floors, Rovner has placed a work called DataZone (2003), a group of long tables with what look like illuminated petri dishes. Inside, displayed under glass, are diminutive videos of oddly de-sexed silhouetted figures dancing in routines reminiscent of Busby Berkeley. Like humanoid ants in a pure white background, they move, happily, silently. Perhaps, in time, all those other marchers will join them.
Rovner's media art is like no other. She stands alone in the pure and artful way she bends digital technology to suit her own vision. She makes of these tools fine materials like the smoothest of marble or the supplest of paints.
MICHAEL RUSH is the author of New Media in Late 20th-Century Art and the forthcoming Video Art, both from Thames and Hudson. He is director of the Palm Beach Institute of Contemporary Art.