In a Field of Her Own

Daniel Rauchwerger
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Daniel Rauchwerger

It's lunchtime in Paris. Ten construction workers sit on stone benches as a gentle spring sun shines above. Cans of sardines, tuna, corn and pineapple are passed among them, while the cement mixers stand idle for a few moments. Alongside the dozens of crates containing basalt stones and slabs of chiseled and numbered Hebron limestone are sacks filled with cement, white gravel and crushed volcanic tuff from the Golan Heights. These building materials, almost 150 tons by weight, were brought here a month ago, some from New York but mostly from Israel.

Passersby come closer and gaze in astonishment at the temporary metal fence erected around the construction site. One can hear the chatter of the workers in Arabic and Hebrew. Small yellow signs explain: "Artworks under construction." This is what the northeastern end of the Cour Napoleon esplanade - in the heart of the Palais du Louvre - looked like a few weeks ago, at the main entrance to the museum.

Ten minutes' walk away, in the hotel where she is staying, Michal Rovner is finishing some last editing touches to several video works. She will arrive at the esplanade soon, in order to help, build and talk with her crew of workers.

Michal Rovner

For the past few months she has been sleeping about two hours a night. "I haven't taken a break for so long. Not on Fridays, not on Saturdays, not on the Seder eve," says Rovner, 53. She arrived in Paris in April, together with her beefed-up team of 30, including 16 construction workers. In the wake of the prolonged preparations and strenuous pressure, the climax came last week: Rovner had to summon all her remaining strength, wear a festive dress, and receive the thousands of guests who came for the opening of her exhibition.

The exhibition, called "Histories," sets a precedent on several levels. For the first time ever, the Louvre Museum permitted the installation of artworks on the Cour Napoleon. In addition, video art was projected onto the original foundations of the Palais du Louvre, in the dark cellars of the museum. What's more, the scope, aura and financial cost of the exhibition are all on a grander scale than any previous contemporary art exhibition mounted there.

Although the Louvre is one of the world's best-known and most popular museums, its experience in mounting contemporary art exhibitions has, to date, amounted to merely exhibiting artwork alongside the museum's masterpieces, in a manner that did not raise a great deal of excitement. A current underwhelming exhibition, for example, of the English sculptor Tony Cragg, in which black metallic statues bearing a polished, sparkling look have been installed in the Roman sculpture plaza.

In contrast, Rovner's exhibition is monumental, being spread over three different wings of the museum. It was conceived as a site-specific exhibition. Aside from two stone structures, "Makom II" and "Makom IV," which are installed in the Cour Napoleon, it includes two large video works that are projected onto the stone walls of the palace's foundations, one 26 meters wide and over three meters high, the other 15 meters wide and three meters high. Additional video installations by Rovner are installed in the Department of Near Eastern Antiquities and in the Medieval Louvre.

There is a large, obtrusive crack in one of the faces of "Makom IV," which is constructed from basalt stones brought from the Galilee and Golan. Similarly, in her sweeping video work, which she refers to as a "moving fresco," the Louvre courtyard is depicted as if it were post-disaster. Rovner's creative oeuvre has never been a particularly cheery one, but in this work it feels as if the extreme rage and sadness are piercing her masonry walls. In the past year, Rovner lost both her parents, who passed away one after the other. They were, she says, her closest friends.

Planting wildflowers

Over the course of Rovner's career, she has won numerous prizes and awards, including the Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, a knighthood awarded by the French Government. Although she has mounted over 50 solo exhibitions, the Louvre exhibition is probably the jewel in her crown. But before Rovner moves any more mountains, "Histories" halts her for a long pause of soul-searching and self-recognition.

She grew up in Ramat Chen, a neighborhood of Ramat Gan. Her father was a contractor and businessman and her mother worked as an early childhood caregiver. She describes her relationship with her parents as exceptional; she was raised in an open-minded household, was not an especially good pupil, and her parents did not push her or aim her in any particular direction. As a teenager she was a dancer and had considered continuing in that field; she felt that it belonged to her. "It was like exerting my authority over matter," she explains. But army service put an end to this distraction.

Following her studies at Tel Aviv University in cinema, television and philosophy, Rovner attended the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design in Jerusalem, joining the photography department in its first year of existence. As a student, she was already inventing new ways of treating photography as a material medium. She never made do with a simple photograph; she always processed the negatives.

In parallel with her studies, Rovner managed - together with her former spouse, Arie Hammer - the Camera Obscura school in Tel Aviv. In the mid-80s, she got divorced and went to New York, where she became an assistant to the famous American photographer Robert Frank. Ever since, she has divided her time between New York and Kfar Shmuel, a moshav near Ramle, where she lives alone in a small white house in the heart of a large tract of land.

"My mother said, about my field and my house, that in her opinion it is my most significant and finest work, because I am constantly changing it," Rovner says. "I get up in the morning, look around, and see something that has to be this way or that way. I am a big fan of making changes. It invigorates me; like a bird which if it did not move its wings would plummet."

During a visit to her home, prior to her departure for Paris, she is constantly followed by six large white dogs, as well as a never-ending procession of assistants. The entire lot is filled with wildflowers, which Rovner plants out of "a passion and longing for the wildflowers that we were forbidden to pick when we were kids." Still, from time to time she will suddenly decide to modify the landscape, uprooting the poppies and chrysanthemums, spreading in their place crushed stones, as in an English garden. The landscape composition may look natural and wild, but Rovner is in absolute control of the space. "It's very pretty, the way that nature gives you something else each time," she says. "The moment that the flowers reach their climax, and will soon begin to vanish, that is when the fruits are already beginning to form."

As she speaks, several workers are carrying a wooden board with a mosaic that she created not long ago, while others are busy completing the construction of "Makom IV" prior to its careful dismantling and dispatch to Paris. The moment encapsulates the style of Rovner's work: In the same way she is linked to the land, she is also detached from the local arts arena.

"In New York I have this loft that is fairly large and very white, with a wooden floor that I painted white, and it's all very bare," she says. "Whenever I go there, the first thing I do is to start arranging things. Every time I visit, they prepare flowers for me and I don't know what to do with them, because they're not the right flowers. And I don't know what the right flowers are until I arrive and then head out, tired as can be, to bring some plant from a flower shop."

Discussing her work on the Makom series, Rovner says there "was a day when I was in the studio [in Kfar Shmuel] and we were talking about how the Palestinian builders would get there, that they would have to come through Jordan. And then, suddenly, I hear a helicopter in the sky, and sirens. I look at the road that climbs up to Jerusalem, and there was a big traffic jam. And then I heard there had been a terrorist attack, and the first thing I could think was, 'Oh no, please no,' because everything has recovered somewhat, 'please don't let it start again.' And then my second thought was, 'How will we be able to finish the work? What's going to happen? Now they will impose a curfew, and the Palestinians won't be able to come to work? And how will they be able to come to Paris?'"

The genesis of the Makom series lies in a visit she made to the Golan Heights and seeing the remains of Arab homes: "I went to gather stones and saw all of the demolished homes," Rovner says. "I'm someone who loves homes, and the ones that were built there are gorgeous, with arches. Another destroyed home and then another. As I see it, this expresses a lack of reverence for the creation of another human being, even if he belongs to another people whose leader is presently considered your enemy. It is a destruction that hurts you to see it.

"By the time I began working on the exhibition in Paris," she adds, "all sorts of shifts were underway in Israel and elsewhere, such as what happened in Egypt and Libya, or what happened in Japan. I am standing here in this world, which is moving this way and that way, and everything like this induced me to enlarge the crack [in the structure], and make it wider. In short, it starts with the Syrian-African Rift and ends with a broken heart, with all sorts of political doings along the way."

Marie-Laure Bernadac, the chief curator of contemporary art at the Louvre and curator of the "Histories" exhibition, is not worried about the overt display of Rovner's political values at the museum. "She has an energy that causes people to work together; that is something I have now discovered," Bernadac observes. "I think the exhibition is essentially archaeology of the present, and this is also reflected in the location of the works. Some are situated inside, integrated within the Department of Near Eastern Antiquities and the medieval moat, and those that are outside are basically standing on the ceiling of the museum exhibition space, so that they share a three-dimensional connection."

The installation of the two monumental structures, "Makom II" (which arrived from the Pace Wildenstein Gallery in New York ) and "Makom IV" (which came from Israel ), was problematic due to their extreme weight; the esplanade of the Cour Napoleon is not meant to carry such a load. The need for endless permits began with the institution's safety engineers and worked their way up to the City of Paris' bureau of monument architecture, causing a delay of two weeks until the start of construction work was authorized. Prior to her departure for Paris, Rovner stated that there had been no support - financial or engineering - for the erection of the two Makom structures. "Nevertheless," she added, "the work has already created a very powerful effect on anyone who has seen it, and it has moved them a bit. The last time I was at the Louvre, I was told that it would be too difficult and too expensive, and maybe it would be too much. You know how it is when people say, 'You don't have to do so much,' or 'You already have enough for an exhibition' - I objected to that. I felt an internal protest, I said - to myself and to them - that I am doing it. I myself commissioned all the workers and even increased the number of workers, and that same day I enlarged 'Makom IV' from five meters to seven meters. All of this was going on at a time when it was more or less clear that no one was backing me up."

Aside from its high cost, the major delay put a lot of pressure on Rovner and her team. "I told the builders that now it would be difficult, [that we had] to do everything fast," but the builders weren't daunted. "They simply understood straight away what I wanted and how important the installation at the Louvre was. All of us worked around the clock." Eventually Rovner conceded some ground and agreed to make do without a row of stones in one of the structures.

This week, in Paris, she is energetically moving about from one spot to another, seeking new and interesting angles to view her work. One such vantage point, for example, is the view from the museum's Near Eastern Antiquities wing outward, looking toward the big esplanade.

Numero uno

Rovner is currently the best known and most successful Israeli artist in the world. "Makom I," her first work in the Makom series, which was shown in New York and subsequently in England, was sold in a private auction at Sotheby's auction house in London. Although the numbers are confidential, it is thought to be the most expensive artwork ever sold by an Israeli artist, living or dead. Rovner's photography prints (from series comprising of a few copies ) have been sold in recent years for $50,000-$60,000.

Rovner's emergence as a recognized international artist was gradual. It began in the mid-90s, a decade during which she mounted several solo exhibitions in galleries in London, Chicago and elsewhere. At one major exhibition in 1997, at Tate Britain, she showed video works. Recognition of her talent has grown in the past decade. In 2002, she exhibited at New York's Whitney Museum, and the following year she represented Israel at the Biennale in Venice. Art critics cited her exhibition in Venice as being that year's most striking and outstanding. Rovner remembers the queues at the entrance and the number of times she heard Italians saying "Il padiglione Israeliano, il numero uno! [The Israeli pavilion is number one]."

They are not the only ones to be impressed. In Le Monde, Jacques Mandelbaum wrote in September 2005: "Michal Rovner's exhibition in Jeu de Paume elicits a rare feeling: The sense of making a fresh discovery. This internationally-acclaimed artist has produced strange and original works, delicate in their roughness and right off the beaten art track." In August 2008 Benjamin Genocchio wrote in The New York Times: "This unsparing view of human existence is material for Michal Rovner. Her Venice show, which I saw, was the hit of the Biennale. What makes her so special? Her work, full of pathos and poetry, is radically different from anything else you are likely to see in a gallery or museum. She is a philosopher as much as an artist, assembling mysterious tableaux that are haunting metaphors for our lives."

The works presented in "Histories" are very different from the Rovner art that Israeli audiences are familiar with - including the video footage she projected into Petri dishes. Her most recent exhibition in Israel was at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art ("Fields", 2006 ), which included several works that were also part of her exhibition in Venice. Her exhibitions in Tel Aviv were curated by Prof. Mordechai Omer, the director and chief curator of the museum.

Referring to her work here, Rovner says she contributed something for last year's popular "Fresh Paint" exhibition, "but that came from the place of 'maybe I should' communicate a little with what is happening here. I don't actively take pains to communicate. I don't read art magazines regularly or meet with curators. There is something monk-like about my life, you could say. I rarely engage in the things that people call life's pleasures, like sitting in bars and restaurants."

She describes her transition from focusing on video art to monumental creative works like the Makom series as "a decision made after one sleepless night. The shift from a situation of coming into existence or from a specific condition of existence to a different possible existence that might have been, had already been done in photography. Later on, I used video so that I could extract photographs from it, because I was fond of its flattening aspect. And that led to the video art. But I never liked the business of projecting onto a screen, it always annoyed me that it was dictated from 'without'. I work with light, but light isn't exactly a material, it is not material that you can hold, it's not exactly physical. It was important to me to connect it with some other material, like stone. In 'Makom II,' I and my video work capitulated. We left the yard and went home, staggering along the way. I simply realized that there was no longer any need for this thing of mine there."

Rovner's style of work - so exacting and practically scientific - and the large team that assists her in her creative efforts, are markedly different from the norm in the Israeli art arena. "There isn't a single artist here who reaches this level of technology," says Prof. Omer. "The video works of other artists look like student projects compared to hers."

Nevertheless, Rovner feels a strong bond to Israel and its heritage, as well as to a limited number of artists here. "I feel very close to the works of David Reeb, for instance, which are very political, only I do it in a manner that is below the surface. The touch of [Moshe] Gershuni, who I really think is the master craftsman here, is practically electrifying," she says. Rovner also feels a powerful connection to the author David Grossman, who wrote a text for her current exhibition. Rovner describes his description of her artwork as "the most moving and fascinating words written about my work." She has created a book together with Grossman, entitled "Hug," which is a kind of children's book. It was recently published in Hebrew by Am Oved.

Mordechai Omer says the connection between Rovner and Israel is "a difficult story, because she is very much from here, and she is solitary. There has always been a detachment between her and her surroundings." The curator Sergio Edelstein feels that "in her context, it would in principle be wrong to talk about her art with or without Israeli attributes. She does not easily fit into the realm of video art in Israel, but that is not a negative. She is unique, she has her own style, for better or worse, she has signature; you see her work and know that it is hers. She was well-formulated and recognizable as a photographer before she even started with video - her old works carried on a discussion with the photography of the 80s. She has a lot of collectors and buyers, but she does not connect to her surroundings, and that's OK."

Michal Rovner describes her first foray into video art as coincidental: An installation she was making on the Israel-Lebanon border developed into a fascinating conversation with the person on the other side of the border. "When I began 'Border,' I didn't intend at all to make a film," she explains. "I went to create an installation there, on the boundary between Israel and Lebanon. I had a strong attraction to this place, without reporting to myself exactly why. It was an inquisitiveness about a situation, like a magnet. I said, 'OK, I need to document this.' And as I was documenting it, we heard a few shells being fired and other stuff, and then all of a sudden this reality turned into something more fascinating than the 'act' of my relationship to reality or my planned intervention in it."

Her series of photographs, entitled "Outside" - which describes anonymous houses without windows or doors - emphasizes her work in the processing of photographs. In the early 90s she was attracted to the work of artists like Gerhard Richter, who used photographs as ready-mades [found art]. At the same time, given the evolution of her own visual language, she eventually moved in a different direction: Repeat images of indistinctive persons became a characteristic attribute of her video works.

Rovner is without doubt at the vanguard of contemporary Israeli art. At the same time, the search for an Israeli artist willing to say anything good about her work is a thankless task. Mordechai Omer notes that Israeli artists who are successful abroad are always the object of unpleasant criticism here. Aside from that, her engagement in political subjects related to Israel infuriates artists who work and show here, as if it were a superficial and irrelevant invasion of an area that is no longer hers. In the opinion of these artists (who do not agree to be quoted by name ), Rovner's political work - such as the stone structures in the Makom series - is cynical. Yet it seems as if this attitude toward her work partly stems from unfamiliarity with her development as an artist.

Minutes of contentment

This titan of the art world is a woman of slight dimensions who stands just over a meter and a half tall. She has a delicate, almost childlike face. Perhaps due to the prolonged lack of sleep, her stability seems shaky, almost without a firm hold on the ground, like a fallen leaf. Her body movements are spare but decisive, and it often seems as if she is standing or moving symbolically, more like a transitory allegory than anything real.

"I know I am a very maternal person toward other people. It is a sort of compulsion I have," says Rovner, who lives alone. "On the other hand, I cannot see how anyone could live with me, be it a husband or a child, with a person who is so self-sufficient. I have these little moments when I have a deep feeling, for a moment, of being the little wife of a man, of waiting up for my husband with the television on; I played that role for a while when I was married. Not that I was so overwhelmingly the wife of a man; we did have Camera Obscura together. But I did like to make dinners with a lot of courses, to express this kind of maternalism that is in me, a sort of wife. I liked to wear those shoes.

"I was asked on television if I am a content person. Sometimes I don't know. I have my hours, maybe minutes, when I am content. I am very happy with what I have. No one tore me away from my children, or from my potential husband, and put me alone out there in a big field. I put myself there, precisely when my life began to head to a different place," Rovner says. Then she qualifies herself: "But it isn't that interesting, either, because I am not really present in my works, and they are the most important thing."

According to Omer, "Rovner doesn't leave room to interpret her work, and in fact avoids it. The issue of space, as far as she is concerned, has been a constant, ever since the first structures she built in the works she created after Bezalel. These were structures built along the road to the Dead Sea - anonymous, lacking any human spirit, empty and detached. She engages in a sensation of belonging, of home, of what a home is. For her, the home is truly like 'a river without bottom and without banks,' as Andre Bergson said; a house whose walls may not exist.

"In her work," Omer continues, "there is a demanding race toward a goal you cannot even identify. It remains that way, without any answer. A journey of energies. The story of the place is so fragile, it is every place and no place, and it is the backbone that passes through all of her work.

"Of course, she did not invent the subject of place," says Omer. "In that sense, you could compare her to other artists, from [Yitzhak] Danziger to Dani Karavan. As opposed to Danziger, Michal refers to the political aspect, because with her these are stones from a collection of ruins that make up a 'place.' With Danziger, it heads in the direction of exaltation of apolitical art, in the name of art, such as in the New York school. With Karavan, the engagement is more local, in a minimalist language."

The major exhibition at the Louvre is not the only Rovner show in town. The Louis Vuitton fashion house is situated on the Champs-Elysees, and there, on the sixth floor, is Espace culturel, a large art exhibition space. A colossal sign on the side of the building promotes the "Making of Makom" exhibition, an initiative of Espace culturel's artistic director, Marie-Ange Moulonguet. The display includes a few dozen photographs and two films - material that documents Rovner's work on the stone structures she has built in the Louvre esplanade.

Moulonguet saw Rovner's "Fields" exhibition at the Jeu de Paume in Paris in 2005, and returned to it every day. Ever since, she has hoped to meet Rovner and to work with her. She walks around the intimate exhibition and is astonished anew by each photograph, remembering - with a slight sigh - her most recent visit to Israel, to Rovner's studio and home. On Rovner's cellphone is a text message she received from Moulonguet, in which the curator informs her that she had never wept from a work of art as she did from Rovner's, and in which Moulonguet asks the artist to learn French, because "I have so much to tell you."

The exhibition at the Louvre will be open for two months, but the two Makom structures will remain in the Cour Napoleon for most of 2011. "I think at least one of the structures must remain there," Moulonguet says. "It instantly became part of the code of the esplanade."

It is difficult to imagine what Rovner's next objective might be. Her exclusive concentration on this exhibition, to which she refers with terms like "once in a lifetime" and "a dream fulfilled", has not given her an opportunity to consider what lies ahead. Nevertheless, she mentions she might collaborate with the British architect Norman Foster, who attended the opening along with other luminaries, including composer Philip Glass, and friends such as the fashion designer Alber Elbaz.

"My father harbored a great interest in Napoleon," Rovner says. "When I received the knighthood, and he was still here - incidentally, the last book he read was a biography of Napoleon, it was on his bedside table - he was so happy. He called me and asked 'Michal'eh, are you busy?' He said 'I simply cannot believe it, my daughter is a knight; my daughter is a knight.' And the two of us began to sing the French national anthem. In the end, you want all this recognition to give your parents some pleasure."