San Francisco

Michal Rovner

Friends of Photography/Ansel Adams Center

Unlike many historical “birthdays” (Pearl Harbor Day, Independence Day, Columbus Day), the first anniversary of the beginning of the Gulf War, on January 15, inspired few commemorative exhibitions, In “Decoy—The Gulf War,” Israeli artist Michal Rovner reminds us why that is, despite the overwhelming popularity of Operation Desert Storm and the “victory” it brought about. The seven works in this show were made by photographing videotape images of the war as it appeared daily, even hourly, on television. Enlarged substantially, these pictures show shadowy figures in an almost nonexistent landscape, uncomfortably recalling the vague, sketchy, visual reporting of one of the most rapidly devastating wars of the modern era. Despite the constant news bulletins (many of them from the enemy’s capital city), the U.S. government’s censorship of the media, coupled with the physical difficulties attendant upon even getting to the actual sites of combat, resulted in a paucity of real photographic information. As Rovner’s cool, somewhat abstract images suggest. the presentation was such that we might have been watching anything from old war movies to electronically generated animation, rather than the devastation that was actually taking place.

As if to remind us of this emotionally alienated experience, Rovner’s multigenerational process imposes an extraordinary viewing distance. These images break apart into frustratingly unintelligible static when seen from less than several feet away. Instead of moving from picture to picture, it is more effective to stand in the middle of the gallery and pivot slowly, scanning the room. In one image, a circle drawn around some feature—a building, or maybe a vehicle—recalls the numbing, incessant, play-by-play reporting provided by news commentators, which suggested nothing so much as the instant-replay deconstruction of football strategies. In other pictures, single figures or small groups move through empty, faintly atmospheric space. Some appear to be soldiers; others could just as easily be civilians, fleeing (invisible) carnage. Is the man holding up his arms surrendering or signaling victory? It’s the mystery—the lack of particularity—that makes Rovner’s images so riveting. This may be the way war will look to us from now on, in this read-my-lips era of “smart bombs.” Yet, us technologically advanced as the Gulf War supposedly was, tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of civilians died. We just weren’t permitted to view their pain and devastation, the way we were in World War II, Korea, or Vietnam. We were encouraged not to care, by not being shown these people’s faces, or the full extent of the ecological disaster that has taken place in the gulf. In Bird Map (all works 1991), the black, oil-covered head of a bird silhouetted against a whitish ground could just as easily be a diagram, or an aerial photograph, implying that the scale of what we are seeing is impossible to judge without some means of comparison.

Perhaps the reason the Gulf War has been so quickly forgotten is that, to most Americans, the entire experience amounted to little more than a barrage of diagrams, maps, and talking heads. It may be, however, that for TV viewers saturated with decoys—visually deceptive, emotionally charged images meant to make you buy, or do, or use—Rovner’s disintegrating shadows will prove to be a moving alternative.

Maria Porges