Michal Rovner’s, Against Order? Against Disorder?, 2003, filled the Israeli pavilion in the Venice Biennale of 2003 providing a highly effective, multi-faceted and thought provoking immersive installation.
The “Data Zone” aspect of the installation consisted of a row of tables containing Petri dishes of the kind one would find in a laboratory. On closer inspection, however, one could see that the dishes were really being used as video screens. And as one peered into the Petri-dish-videos one saw, not bacteria, but rather a mass of tiny silhouetted men. One wonders why Rovner chose men, and one reason appears to be that she is using a rubber stamp methodology for the production of these masses of people. They seem to be based fundamentally on a generic human being: rather like a bacterium; but, again, one wonders why she chose men: perhaps because she’s a woman, perhaps because she is an Israeli? Whatever the reason, what we have here a rather interesting depiction of humanity. We are pictured as bacteria intimately intertwined and rhythmically pulsating according to a pattern larger than that of the individual.
After the Petrie dishes one wandered into a large darkened room the walls of which were covered in a projection of what appeared to be thousands, if not millions of these generic human creatures marching incessantly in lines. One has to realise that this is was the first Venice Biennale to have taken place after 9/11. Being in a darkened room in the Israeli pavilion in the aftermath of 9/11, and the 20 March 2003 invasion of Iraq, looking at what appeared to be millions of people marching endlessly in serried ranks towards nothingness, appeared to be profoundly significant.
None of this was necessarily in the mind of the artist, however, but the darkness of the room of marching people was most certainly intentional. In the photograph above left for example one can see that the projection onto a child’s white T-shirt is much brighter than the image on the wall, suggesting that the wall may have been painted a muted colour. My memory is most certainly one of darkness, whereas my reflection focuses on the abstraction, because the figures are not necessarily anything to do with any particular human conflict, whether that be the “war on terror” or the Holocaust, which also sprang to mind in this remarkable video installation. Despite such references this work seems more generalised and existential. John Tusa’s interview with Rovner after the Biennale on the BBC’s Radio 3 (a specifically cultural broadcasting channel) does not throw a great deal of light on the matter, apart from Tusa noting that Rovner “quotes Giacometti approvingly: ‘Has the artist erased enough data?'” (BBC).
On can speak in terms of abstraction and existentialism, discourses of the 1940s and ’50s, but one can also contemplate the fact that Rovner is an Israeli who lives in works in New York. This certainly has significance for a remarkably “dark” installation made in the aftermath of 9/11. No doubt, in part, Rovner left her native Tel Aviv to plug into a major node of the international art scene, but also to escape a war zone. And then in 2001 New York itself became the war zone. Like one of Rovner’s video Petri dishes the sphere of conflict suddenly expanded to include many more people than before. Those “underdeveloped” peoples previously hemmed in by superior weaponry were able to forge a remarkable instrument of asymmetrical warfare. This was thoroughly shocking to a self-contained American serenity used to the “remote control” effect of having Israel as a species of military base tucked safely away in the distant Middle East. The silence in the New York art world in the aftermath of 9/11 was deafening. In 2003 there were virtually no artistic responses to the Twin Towers tragedy from artists in New York. Perhaps one can count Against Order? Against Disorder? as one of the first.
On the other hand, what is remarkable about this work is its absolute lack of specificity, at least within the work itself. It only acquires such specificity via context and reflection. One can also note that for Rovner the “war on terror” was not something new: it was an integral part of her everyday life through childhood and into her term in the Israel Defense Force (Israel is the only country in the world that conscripts women into the military). This might explain the abstraction and the existentialism. One can draw a parallel, perhaps, between Against Order? Against Disorder? and Joseph Cedar’s recent film (2007) Beaufort. Like Rovner, Cedar is Israeli and his film treats the Israeli war with Lebanon in 2000 telling the story of “the last Israeli soldiers guarding an isolated outpost in southern Lebanon at the end of Israel’s 18-year occupation” (Los Angeles Times). This is a film about futility, about people controlled by circumstances outside anyone’s control; trapped within a recurring statistical pattern like bacteria growing and dying in Petri dishes on a table.
Maybe now we can answer the question why it is that Rovner uses men as the primary signifier in Against Order? Against Disorder? Perhaps it is because she is an Israeli brought up in a nation ineluctably dominated by the fundamentally masculine discourse of warfare: a discourse that in the aftermath of 2001 was able to reinfect the heart of America.
For more on Michal Rovner’s work see Safed-Tzfat (Spanish)