Identity in a Time of Conflict
an interview with Israeli Artist, Michal Rovner
By Evan Dashevsky
Artist Michal Rovner has established herself as one of Israel's most visually-striking, not to mention, successful contemporary visual artists. Her moody abstract multi-media works have largely dealt with ideas of identity and the form groups (or one perhaps herds) of individual's take when they come together. Being an Israeli artist, and the world situation being what it is, her depictions of blurred images of once-separate entities congealing into a larger amoebic creatures can take on certain political and social connotations which may reveal more about the subjective viewer than the artist. I was first introduced to Ms. Rovner's work during her excellent mid-career retrospective at New York's Whitney Museum of Art where the work's themes of sacrifice one must make in return for the comfort and security of being a piece of a larger society seems to have been missed in the aftermath of the September 2001 attacks --the museum's plaque explaining her video piece, Time Left described the piece as a showcase of positivity in this post-9/11 era, and how we, as New Yorkers and as Americans have found strength in community. My immediate reactions certainly disagreed with this interpretation. The piece is a small cubical room where projected images of high-contrasted and unending rows of silloueted people join hands and travel endlessly around the perimeter of the room while an eerie tone sets a post-apocolypitical emptiness. The piece, wisely, uses no text or explicit explanation, but one can't help but be reminded of every science fiction dystopia ever put to paper or Saturday matinee that warned of conformity run amok. However, at the same time you truly do sense that each one of the individual steadily walking characters in the piece has much more context and presence when seen as part of this larger whole - and in this current age, you can't help but understand how one sole person might find it more meaningful to define themselves through the identity of their particular nation or their particular brand of revolutionary theocracy.
"I made the work - the explanation was written by the curator. There is a place for the subjective opinion of the curator. She said that the project was very hopeful, I said it was very hopeless... in many works there is a merging - images of people coming together accumulating into a stronger mass and they become like an animal form. There is an ambiguity. But also definitely not a communist or socialist propaganda for 'Let's get together and everything will be great'."
Rovner proudly identifies herself as a member of the non-nationalist left, but in these days of infitada, admits that the average Israeli's choice of personal safety versus humanistic leanings, is not much of a choice at all. In this, she is facing some of the dilemmas that western, and particularly American artists will face in the coming years. Artists have typically been the voice of non-nationalism and the questioners of the motives and actions of cultures whose gentle wax and wanes can sometimes lead to dangerous rip-tides. As America draws itself further into conflict, our artists will face several hurdles in the years to come, at the forefront will be how to speak and challenge a public which was witness to the first attacks on American soil in sixty years. In Israel, this situation has been, obviously, magnified as a country the size of New Jersey faces a sometimes daily cycle of attacks and reprisals and every citizen is forced to join the army. And yet, according to Rovner, her country has remained much freer than America, who when faced with one day of terror has become a society where any notion of humanism or even diplomacy has been branded weak or un-patriotic.
"The Israeli nation itself is very unlike America - which is very united now with everyone talking about '9-11'. Israel's a very split nation in terms of ways to deal with the situation. Every night on the television there are debates which sometimes turn to screaming at each other. Because there is a very big debate - has been and there still is. It is absolutely not 100% of the nation is for Sharon - Absolutely not. It's probably closer to 50 - 50, 40 - 60, or something like that. At the same time, the first urge of a human being, if they are normal, is to survive. You want to make sure that you are able to walk down the street and not be blown to pieces. Everyone knows at least a relative of someone this has happened to. It happens. So, first of all, you want to be safe. When you are at the risk of such a thing - you tend to move a little to the right - you want to be secure. You want to fight back. At the same time, I truly believe, very few people feel good about a village being bombed, or that little innocent children are being hurt. It's not a nice feeling. But it's a very free country, it's very democratic. I think it's an even more free country than the U.S. speechwise - journalist continually attack the Prime Minister over there. I don't feel that any artists in Israel are inhibited in their communication."
If Israeli artists have not felt obliged to self-censor in the name of patriotism, other powers have taken it on themselves to censor their voices for them (eventhough ironically, they may be on the same page). Recently, an academic boycott of Israel has been instituted, rooted strongest in Europe, and in particular England. Many Israeli artists and intellectuals are being barred from even non-political debates and academic journals and facing isolation in an institution which has always prided itself on freedom of expression. Rovner, who stated that Israeli colleagues of hers have been having European shows canceled commented--
"One should feel free to express themselves. You shouldn't generalize someone - to say you belong to this nation, and we don't like this and that about your nation - regardless of even why you would do this and that - or even we don't like your Prime Minister at the moment and therefore we won't let you express yourself. It's a very suppressive act".
It may be mere coincidence that the same voices who have screamed to stop all public funding of the arts seem too often to be coming from the same people who are fanning the flames of war. And it may be sheer happenstance that this nation's many news organizations have started singing in unison with populist fear-fed talk radio dribble when they once at least attempted to embrace the ethics that define journalism. But one thing is certain, more than ever before in recent history, the real voices of patriotism (here, being defined as wanting your nation to survive) will be those that speak in discordant tones and find their own path that breaks free from these tides of rabid populism. When we have ceased being individuals, it won't even matter if we get blown up anymore.
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