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Image Is Everything

Michal Rovner couldn't control the chaos and strife she grew up with in Israel: terrorist attacks, Arab-Israeli warfare, the detachment of a people living among enemies. Born in Tel Aviv in 1957, the 41-year-old artist eventually turned that sense of powerlessness and displacement into the driving force of her career. In her video footage and still photographs, images of objects and human figures are stretched, compressed, and shrouded almost beyond recognition with computer manipulation, providing a feeling of anonymity. And whatever the subject of a piece, it is always surrounded by empty space.

The subject of her Outside series (1991), for example, is a dilapidated Bedouin house Rovner came across in the Israeli desert. "At first I loved it, then I wanted to change it," she says. After shooting video and taking Polaroid snapshots of the house, she ran the images through a copy machine in order to lose some of the detail. She then scanned the resulting images into a computer, with which she further obscured the originals. The idea was to get rid of the house itself and leave behind only a shell, the better to represent the sense of loneliness the house conveyed.

Lacking in Rovner's work is any strong political statement about the situation in her homeland. Rather than take sides, she's more interested in Arab-Israeli politics as an example of the human condition. Her Mutual Interest series began with a video of birds in flight -- not your calm, V-shaped migration pattern, but a confused mass of flapping wings, as if the birds were fleeing danger. And in the finished piece, the birds look like a swarm of insects or a group of fighter planes. Either interpretation supports Rovner's premise: that chaotic group behavior is based on instinct.

Mortality is another Rovner theme. Walking through her show "Michal Rovner: Selected Works, 1991-1998" at Schmidt Center Gallery in Boca Raton, Rovner stops at a large panel titled China 1995. At first glance it looks like a scene featuring peasants at work in a field. But the image comes from a video of war prisoners. The "furrows" in the field are actually tank tracks, the "mountains" in the distance the tanks themselves.

"In one frame [the photo] creates a political statement of these groups that go against each other, but they are the same," Rovner says. "When a person becomes a person, or ceases to be a person, that is what is important." So why turn a potentially violent scene into a placid one? "I'm interested in displacement," Rovner explains, "in moving something from its original context."

Rovner moved herself to New York City in 1988. She'd graduated from the Bezalel Academy of Art in Tel Aviv in 1985, and filmmaker Robert Frank, whom she'd heard lecture at another school there, suggested she head to the Big Apple. After arriving she worked on his films.

Varied experiences may explain Rovner's somewhat schizophrenic approach to artistic expression; she takes snapshots one moment and plays film director the next. Some of her still images hang in the finest museums around the world, and her first film, Border -- a documentary shot along the Israel-Lebanon border -- was recently screened at the Fort Lauderdale International Film Festival.

Without a computer to get in the way, the movie, no doubt, offers viewers a clearer vision than any of those seen in her photographic work. But don't get used to it. Rovner seems most at home while turning video and photo images into works that resemble smudgy charcoal drawings.

-- Steve Schmidt

"Michal Rovner: Selected Works, 1991-1998" is on view through January 17 at Florida Atlantic University's Schmidt Center Gallery, 777 Glades Rd., Boca Raton. Admission is free. Call 561-297-2966.

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Steve Schmidt

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