by Vatsala SethiDec 26, 2022
She could hear their siren-like howls every night in the rolling fields outside her house, slowly getting louder—and closer. The wild jackal, a crepuscular animal most active at dusk and dawn, has grown increasingly fearless about roaming residential areas in central Israel in search of readily available food refuse. And urban dwellers, albeit aware of the dangers of a nocturnal encounter with the omnivorous canid, have likewise grown inured to their calls. But for visual artist Michal Rovner, whose digital-media artworks cannily vacillate the huge cleave between the poetic and the political, the jackals audible just outside her house—or rather, her fear of them—have become an apt allegory for something that was happening all over the world at the time. In the mid-2010s, at the height of the refugee crisis in Europe, and as terrorist attacks by individuals across France and Germany sowed fear and devastation, racism and suspiciousness of the other were ripe. What if, Rovner asked herself, instead of safely locking herself in at night, she would venture out into the fields and try to get closer to the wild animals?
The result of the installation artist's facing her fears and spending long nights outside in the dark quietly observing and being observed by jackals, is some of the contemporary art that makes up the minimal yet poignant exhibition Alert at Fondazione Merz’s Turin space. Inside the foundation’s darkened art galleries, which the Israeli artist has turned into massive black boxes, Rovner has installed video works and a photo projection, all depicting the vigilant animals, their eyes aglow in the images captured by special night-vision cameras the contemporary artist had used. The works are projected along the full height of the space, like frescos covering entire walls, and appear to be static at first glance. Yet once the viewers’ eyes have grown accustomed to the dim lights and to the works’ immersive dimensions, movement becomes perceptible in the images. In the video work Alert II, for example, the image of the jackal staring straight ahead is underlain with an animation that Rovner has used previously in several of her works, showing lines of miniature people walking across the image as if traversing a vast landscape. It is this element, a signature feature of sorts, that evokes the current malaise of world politics and grounds the art exhibition in the realities of displacement.
All over the world, wild animals are losing their natural habitat to manmade infrastructure. Physical borders, however, such as the border wall between the United States and Mexico, or the separation wall between Israel and the Palestinian Territory in the West Bank, are not only harmful to people, but also to local land-dwelling wildlife species whose habitats lay across ecological corridors that don’t correspond to national borders. However, despite the exhibition’s clear political message, an undeniable otherworldliness permeates the space. The jackals seem eerily familiar, knowing, and yes, as the title suggests, also alert. But above all, they seem protective rather than menacing. “After a few weeks of sitting in the fields at night, one of the jackals, a female, started getting closer,” the artist told me during a press tour of her exhibition back in November 2022. “She was curious about my presence, and slowly got used to me. We would be still together in the dark for long periods of time. Once, when the rest of the pack started in my direction, she protected me,” Rovner described, visibly moved by this fact.
This very image of the jackal as a protector rang familiar to the artist. And indeed, she has encountered it many times before, unwittingly, in ancient Egyptian art. It is Anubis, the god of the dead, depicted either as a jackal or as a man with the head of a jackal. Anubis is the guardian of the tombs, and is the god who accompanies the dead into the afterlife. With their glowing eyes, the jackals in the exhibitions watch us - the viewers. Our feeling of being watched in this liminal space is furthered by the sense of camaraderie that is shared between the pack of animals. Their alert, unsettling presence seems simultaneously threatening and protective. In tone, the work is a reflection on the current state of the world, and at the same time, it takes us to the primal moments reflected in cave paintings.
Rovner’s exhibition was planned before the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and was originally meant to be curated by Germano Celant, the renowned Italian art curator, who, in the late 1960s, identified a new art movement and coined the term Arte Povera. Fondazione Merz, where Rovner’s immersive exhibition takes place, is named after the groundbreaking Arte Povera artist Mario Merz and was founded by his and artist Marissa Merz’s daughter, Beatrice. But Celant passed away in 2020 at the age of 79 due to complications related to the coronavirus, and never got to work on the show. Nevertheless, his input from preliminary conversations with Rovner proved crucial. “He told me that the viewers must get an impression of what it felt like to be out there at night, unprotected, facing the animals,” Rovner shared. And it is because of this remark that Rovner added another element to the exhibition, a live performance which took place at dusk in the outdoor area of the concrete building that houses the Foundation. Blown-up video images of the pack of jackals were projected onto the walls of a sunken courtyard. The artist placed herself amid the monochromatic, blurred images, sometimes disappearing in the darkened spots, reappearing sometimes as if she were one of the pack.
The exhibition commenced on October 31, 2022 and ended on January 29, 2023.