New York

Michal Rovner

Pace Wildenstein

Michal Rovner’s “in stone” consisted of a series of cavernous, darkened rooms filled with perfectly aligned rows of internally lit vitrines, each containing a stone tablet marked with hieroglyphs. Brooding and sterile, the installation recalled an antiquities museum or archaeology department cleansed of dust and clutter. Drawn close to the glowing glass-and-steel displays, the viewer realized that what appeared to be ancient and inert was flickering, technological; what one thought was etched in stone was written in light. Black jots and squiggles were projected against the unincised surfaces by film equipment concealed inside the vitrines. Further inspection revealed that these marks were not plain hatches but tiny human figures, waving their arms, marching, or dancing in lines.

In the side galleries, a swarm of body marks were projected in red light onto the dry floor of a stone well, and a pair of giant stones (Tablets, 2004), onto which photographic images were projected that could be viewed from a specially constructed balcony, were laid in a bed of sand. Here, as elsewhere in her work, Rovner distilled detail to essence, in this case neatly conflating linguistic “character” and human form. Merging marks of communication with the undifferentiated mass that produces language, she in turn fused cinema, writing, and performance. Her metaphor combined such varied references as the grammar of dance, the power of crowds, the relations between words and pictures, and the conflicts between the photographic and the inscribed trace, the permanent and the evanescent. At once orderly and teeming, Rovner’s antlike bodies suggested insect hives and other microsocieties in which efficient cooperation prevails over individual consciousness. Signifying mental process with physical action, she deflated the hubris of the godlike “speaking animal” while honoring speech itself. The gesture was elegant: What writer hasn’t longed for words to dance on the page? What artist wouldn’t want her art to teach its audience to “read” in a new way? Doesn’t any archaeologist fantasize that the mute shards under her lens might come alive?

And yet, in all this metaphorizing, something failed. Despite the stones’ earthy irregularity and the filmic motion, there was a punishing stasis to the show. Technologically sophisticated, elaborately finished, and expensive to produce, the vitrines, with their embedded projectors, suggested incubators, clinical and forbidding. Language as anthrax? Perhaps. After all, Rovner’s fleet, subtle idea—letters as bodies, texts as communities—is inherently neither optimistic nor pessimistic, language being a carrier of hopeful and harmful messages alike. Like biota, words can be made into weapons. That is, the hint of a sinister plan, engineered by some well-heeled, terrifyingly tidy, and invisible mastermind, could have been nuanced rather than fossilized. The problem was not the slightly fascistic regimentation but an imbalance between production values and content. Nothing in the grandiose installation indicated critique of grandiosity. There were too many redundant objects. Boxed into this heavy apparatus, fleetness and subtlety withered.

Rovner has, as we all do, a challenge on her hands. If it is relevant—and it surely is—to use art to help us think not only formally but ethically, then it is crucial to seek the most instructive, revealing, and provocative balance between the universal and the specific. But appropriating museological methods of display to expose assumptions about taxonomy and historiography is not exactly fresh rhetoric. It’s not interesting to say merely, “This is a surrogate museum.” Surrogacy in the service of what? Whose taxonomic desire or historical revisionism are we looking at? It’s not helpful to answer, “Everybody’s.” We are dealing, nonaesthetically, with looted antiquities, fundamentalist interpretations of ancient texts, and the misreading of human bodies as subhuman hordes. Joining a thousand tiny hands to make a garland of indeterminate meaning risks cliché in a time where platitudinous obfuscation is everywhere, and legible, hard facts seem like relics.

Frances Richard