Think of the Egypt wing of the Met: the dimmed lighting to protect the displayed relics; relics ensconced in well-lit glass cases that emanate a glow into the dimmed gallery space; and the reverent, perhaps overly serious way the objects are treated create a subdued awe in the viewer who, reading the clues of the lighting, realizes that this is something special which they are viewing. It is a very similar feeling when one steps into Michal Rovner’s show, “in stone,” on view right now at Pace Wildenstein’s Chelsea space. There is the reverential lighting, and in the first room, four glass display cases, each holding a notebook with text in motion or moving figures projected on to the blank notebook pages.
The first notebook has shifting lines of text that literalize many of the currents of twentieth century literary criticism, showing the instability of the text, and that the meaning of the text, in a Barthesian view, is something that is determined by the reader. Rovner’s pieces in this show, however, push this view even further, or dramatize it as such with the text constantly in flux, shifting, dancing, and circling around the pages of these notebooks. The last two notebooks in the first room forgo the text-like lines, as will the rest of the exhibit, and instead of floating signifiers, get right to the point, and have the signified objects, human figures, floating around pages and stones.
Rovner has hieroglyph-like human figures in motion, reminding the viewer of all that is signified by the alphabetic dashes on pages that these human figures replace – that this is what is signified by these symbols, the human body. This is what it all comes back to, these signifiers all represent human activity of some form, bodies that were at one point in motion, maybe even hopping up and down as Rovner often has them engaged. She makes clear that text is always just an elegy for the body’s activities, and to watch these pieces, to think of what texts represent, the life contained in them, it is sometimes breathtaking.
The human figures on the notebooks move in motions and at speeds that recall the motion studies of Eadward Muybridge. In the notebooks, the figures on the page are not in sync with each other – each one is moving at a different pace, engaged in a different physical activity – jumping at different moments. However, in the second room, not only are the figures projected on to stone but they also all move and jump in unison. Why exactly the human figures on the notebooks are allowed to move at different paces while the human figures on her stone tablets all move in sync like an exercise class is something that is not explicitly made clear in the show. There only seems to be the causal explanation that in later eras (the paper notebook eras / post-stone tablet eras), humans possess more agency and hyper-individualism is the norm. Or, since that seems pretty reductive, and given the commentary on the nature of the text being made throughout the show, this distinction between the two acknowledges that the literary movements of the twentieth century freed these texts to be capable of possessing different readings. However, either way still seems a reductive way of looking at the past, and this is one of the troubling things about this exhibition.
The second room with thirteen glass display cases, each containing a stone tablet, contributes to this feeling of being in the archeology wing of a museum. Most of these tablets have figures either hopping in unison or concentric circles of figures that spiral inward. It is a stodgy setup, but an effective one, its purpose being to show the life, the pulse that is latent in all of these stodgy setups, in all of these texts – the life that is there all the time, dancing or hopping up and down.
This attempt to remind viewers of the vibrancy of texts and relics displayed in stodgy settings becomes even more apparent when one enters the next two rooms, when the well-lit glass case is removed and one actually enters these scenes. The first of these is a dark room, lit only by a stone well in the middle of the room, which when upon looking down into it, the viewer sees red figures in motion, running around in a circle, occasionally all grouping together to form flame-like bursts of red. And after looking down into this well, wondering if this is supposed to be a reflection or a prophesy, the viewer then proceeds up a ramp leading out on to a platform which overlooks two giant stone tablets laid onto a floor of sand.
You are feeling like Indiana Jones right now, looking at the Ark of the Covenant, and the music isn’t helping things. A solemn Druid-like beat pulses while below are these two identical massive tablets with these dashes of human figures in rows like some Ancient language you never bothered to learn, and they are all moving in sync, raising an arm to the side, putting it down, turning to the side, and hopping up and down. The effect that this room has is a magical one, looking down at something that is obviously supposed to reference the tablets Moses received, but which obviously has way more lines needed than necessary to write ten commandments, and they are all in motion, all alive – conveying perhaps no laws we’ll ever be able to read other than that the letters are human figures, living ones, and that is what texts are, all they are.
I also checked out a couple of other shows today on my sick day. I checked out Gordon Matta-Clark’s “Bingo” at David Zwirner, which I liked and which for whatever reasons, I am easily distracted, I don’t know, but which led me to thoughts of William Carlos Williams and his two “Pastoral” poems. I also saw Delia R. Gonzalez’s and Gavin Russom’s “Evolution is Extinct” at Daniel Reich gallery, which I don’t even want to start to tackle tonight because it annoyed me so much. It was one of those galleries that you walk into and right away you think to yourself, “I don’t get it. I just don’t fucking get it.” Black canvases on the wall, black floor to wall arches, and cakes set before stone statues. I stood there for a while, really trying hard to be open-minded, reminded myself that this is what experiencing art is about – slowing down, pausing, and meditating about what is being said, trying to look at things from different ways – expanding the mind, as they say.
So I asked to watch the video, the intern started the projector and I sat there and watched a movie, at the end of which, I said, “No, I do get it. I do fucking get it. These jackasses don’t.” A summary of the video: white chick out in the woods in flower-patterned dress bites into an apple, over and over again, a black hand shuts her mouth, and she is killed. In the process, both females and black males are equated with nature, females of the doe-eyed Bambi variety, black males of the savage Kipling or Conrad variety. And in the process lots of long shots of clouds passing, or of a waterfall. The press release that I read fuming after watching this said something about “archetypes” of early cinema, but the film did not present these archetypes (read sexist and/or racist stereotypes) self-consciously. There was nothing to communicate to the viewer that they were aware of these problems. And there was nothing done to critique or subvert these cinematic practices – the film simply engaged in them. It was at this point that I decided the rest of the art was probably equally uninformed and left the gallery happy.
The other show I saw was Farhad Moshiri’s “Rogue” at Kashya Hildebrand, which I had seen earlier but did not notice anything striking about it and so spent little time with. Michael, the boy whom I have a crush on (and who, rumor has it, has a bf), told me that he really liked the show and spoke touchingly about how beautiful he thought it was. He also was the bartender at the opening and so perhaps just spent too much time around the stuff, you know sort of the Stockholm Syndrome of boring art – if you spend enough time with it, you will come to love it, to imagine its beauty. But this time, I did like it more and read the English translations of the song lyrics that he has painted on vases of Iranian love songs. They were really sentimental and made me excited about life, and about boys, about the springtime that I stepped outside into.