Being and Nothingness


Few things are as seductive as the illusion of nothingness. Just stand for a moment beside Whiteout, the work that greets you in the show of recent sculpture by the Bombay-born, British art star Anish Kapoor, currently at Barbara Gladstone. The sides of this six-foot-two-inch-tall fiberglass white cube (a bit bigger than the average human body) are concave and appear to recede ad infinitum. Though a “Do not touch” sign hangs prominently nearby, people are drawn irresistibly to the work’s seamless surfaces, reaching out a hand to test the immaculate form’s invisible limits.

Mountaineers use the term “whiteout” to describe a mirage brought on by perilous weather, in which snow-covered caps blend with cloudy white skies. The horizon disappears and the earth seems to fall away beneath you, as you lose any sense of your body’s grounding in gravity. I once experienced something similar while clinging, pale and frantic, to the driver of a snowmobile as we ascended a glacier in Iceland, and once again while reclining face-skyward on a platform projecting from a third-story window at P.S.1, in an interactive work by Patrick Killoran. When confined to the relatively safe precincts of art, it’s a feeling both dizzying and pleasurable.

“My work is not about my life history,” Kapoor said years ago in an interview. “It’s not about the story of my neurosis.” (Perhaps that’s why I find it difficult to write about.) Instead, he traffics regularly in metaphysical conundrums voluptuously embodied in form and color. Early one recent morning, a gallery staff member was dusting several biomorphic stainless-steel floor pieces, which bulged, gleamed, and seemed almost to dissolve in kaleidoscopic reflections, like mirrors in a fun house run by some Cartesian philosopher. In the back gallery, Vortex, made of wood, fiberglass, and lacquer, punctuated the wall with a glossy black funnel through which viewers peered to the edge of sight. A morbidly inclined friend, passing by, pointed out the room’s five neon lights, which show up in the work’s burnished surface as the fingers of a skeletal hand—a trompe l’oeil reminder of death, like the skull in Hans Holbein’s painting The Ambassadors.

Carousel, a cylindrical form some eight feet in diameter, is ringed at top and bottom with stainless steel and cut open at the center to reveal another seamless white interior. A round theater (like the Globe), it bifurcates viewers’ bodies, splicing the void between two reflections, and suggesting any number of enigmatic dualities—from spirit and flesh to art’s forever competing impulses of mimesis and escape.

The Israeli artist Michal Rovner, who divides her time between a loft in Noho and a small farm midway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, has been this writer’s friend for some 13 years. (Proof also that art can change your life: She introduced me to my partner, an artist and the father of my child.) So what follows is less a review than a critical appreciation of an art whose emotional power, in any case, needs no explanation.

Rovner, who has worked with photography, film, video, and installation, specializes in degraded images—pictures re-photographed, enlarged, miniaturized, colored, digitally remastered, or otherwise altered to arrive at nearly abstract forms, closer to remembrance than representation. An early series of photographs began with her Polaroid shots of a bedouin house abandoned in the Negev Desert, which she transformed into icons of yearning for a home that exists only in memory and imagination.

More recent works, such as Time Left (2002), the epic, multi-channel video installation that capped her 2002 mid-career retrospective at the Whitney Museum, evoke that existential homelessness, which is among the 20th century’s most enduring legacies, with its endless rows of cipher-like beings—refugees or merely prisoners of time—trudging doggedly toward an unknown future.

For her first show at PaceWildenstein, Rovner has created a gallery of fragments from some lost civilization. Video projections of her signature images—human figures abstracted and reduced in size to an essential alphabet of jumping, bowing, wiggling lines and marks—play across the face of notebooks and stone tablets, which are displayed in vitrines like specimens or archaeological artifacts. The inspired marriage of projected light and mineral hardness makes the work seem at once ethereal and enduring, animating it with something like the union of soul and body. The transformation of people into a language of signs reminiscent of Hebrew, Aramaic, Chinese, or the genetic code of DNA suggests a search for some mysterious, fundamental human script.

Watching these figures dance across pages and surfaces, I recalled the davening motion religious Jews make while praying, in imitation of God’s flickering, eternal flame, and of their prayer each year on Yom Kippur, to be reinscribed in the Book of Life. But the transient bodies passing over granite also reminded me of beliefs common to any number of groups, from Native Americans to Mongolian nomads to New Age practitioners, about humanity as the caretaker of the earth we inherit. Rovner, resolutely secular and universalist in outlook, would resist any narrow interpretation, and surely the divine perspective these works invoke is not limited to a single denomination.


The published version of this story mistakenly attributed a piece of artwork on the third-story window at P.S.1 to James Turrell. The piece, Observation Deck (Queens), was created by Patrick Killoran in 1996.

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