Lisa Rovner is young and idealistic. She idolizes Godard. She has a fetish for images. She longs for the sixties, a time she’s only heard stories of, when revolution and political commitment were common. She thinks our world has dissolved into a muddy pool of consumerism. Rovner, a French-American artist and writer, seeks to utilize mass media and turn it into its own politicized space.
Dear Reader, Rovner’s first solo exhibition in New York, is on view through July 31 at No.10 Gallery in Tribeca. It’s a collection of eight of Rovner’s works, ranging from short films to framed screen grabs, that deconstructs popular culture through a cultural lens. As a sort of preamble to her work, the exhibition features a passage from Walter Benjamin’s Reflections scribbled onto a notepad. The quotation theorizes that copied text, as opposed to text that is merely taken in by a reader passively, effectively engages the reader in the work.
This is, in essence, a summary of Rovner’s exhibition. She doesn’t want us to just “read.” Rather, she wants us to become active participants in what we consume so readily. To her, mass media is devoid of discourse. It’s filled with gaudy, vulgar images that don’t trust us. The problem is that we’re content in viewing ourselves as consumers; when we look at ads, we don’t challenge ourselves. Rovner attacks this aspect of modern-day life with Dream Television (2010), a roughly eight minute-long loop of fake advertisements that Rovner, in collaboration with artist Alice Heart, created for various high-end companies. Set to songs from the eighties, these ads, created for H&M, Levi’s, and similar brands, are eery and romantic. More intimate than manipulative in tone, they’re a far cry from the pop sensationalism of today’s television commercials.
The second of the exhibition’s films, Not of, but from (2009), also subverts traditional storytelling structures. This three-minute video is a filmed self-portrait of Rovner spinning around endlessly in the snow. She dizzies herself to the point of exhaustion, and, at the end of the film, she confronts the camera by holding up signs that spell out a rather telling phrase: “I’m sick from dancing for you.”
Rovner’s newest work, Abstract Expressionism (2011), is shot in hi-definition, representing a break from her traditional video format. Political in structure rather than in content, the film shows a young, gap-toothed, Nordic blonde woman leaning into a wall with a glass against her ear. Rovner discovered her subject, actress Sara Liisborg, at a boutique one day; she was awestruck by her face, and she felt the sudden need to photograph her. She is eavesdropping on what she presumably hears next door. We don’t hear anything; we merely watch her subtle changes in expression for four minutes. Finally, a flood of sound fills the last few seconds of the film, though it’s hard to determine what exactly we’re listening to. It’s left to our imagination. The film is political in the sense that it subverts a traditional narrative structure, asking us what we’re watching, why we’re watching it, and, in short, whether we can construct meaning from an exercise that may seem meaningless. She seeks to involve the viewer, refusing to let us revel in passivity.
Abstract Expressionism is, like most of Rovner’s work, rooted in the political sensibilities of sixties-era filmmakers – Godard, Pasolini, Bertolucci. Fittingly, Rovner spent her undergraduate years at McGill University, and, later, at L’Institut d’Etudes Politiques et Sociales, studying political science. “It’s the best kind of education you can have, I think,” she explains with enthusiasm. “It teaches you all about how systems work, how they operate, which has pretty much shaped how I view my art now.”
Rovner’s foray into the art world wasn’t something she anticipated. She has collaborated with such names as Pierre Huyghe, Sebastien Tellier, Opening Ceremony, Maison Martin Margiela. In the midst of conceptualizing three projects now, she dabbles in various mediums. Rovner just doesn’t understand the concept of confining oneself to one field or artistic medium; she’s inspired by so many artists in different disciplines, she says, and she wants to act upon this impulse. She pays homage to these artists with Significant Figures (2011). Based on the David Salle and James Welling essay, “Images that understand us,” these are three-framed screen grabs from various films that Rovner has appropriated for her own vision. One is from a Robert Bresson film, a still of Jeanne d’Arc, and Rovner has dubbed it a self-portrait. She somehow saw a part of herself in the image of the young, peaceful Jeanne d’Arc laying her head to rest, claiming that the image understood her.