Our latest Carolina Art Crush is Marek Ranis, artist and professor at UNCC. His current exhibition, Arctic Utopia, is on view at the McColl Center for Art + Innovation through November 22. The installation is the result of over ten years of research, including most recently, a two-month residency in Alaska, funded in part by the Rasmuson Foundation.
HappeningsCLT: Describe yourself in three words.
MR: I’m just a visual artist (editor: he later disputes this and calls himself just an immigrant with a US passport).
HappeningsCLT: Who or what inspires you artistically?
MR: I don’t find inspiration in artists…I’m much more inspired by ideas, events, and literature. Although politically I do not agree with the statements made later in life by Christopher Hitchens, his level of artistic engagement, broad spectrum of intellectual interests, and attitude of being a constant contrarian is probably the most inspiring.
HappeningsCLT: It seems like travel or changing your environment provides inspiration as well, especially with your last few projects.
MR: Part of the travel is escapism. I have said this before but I grew up in a communist country where we couldn’t travel. The notion that the world is bigger than our immediate environment is one of the biggest inspirations…not limit myself to self interest or things I am only experiencing in my life. I don’t like ethnocentrism, which means that people are limited from their own ethnic or racial background. That’s why I probably put myself in uncomfortable situations. I tell my students all the time that we know what is expected from us but if art is about anything it’s about freedom. You can do anything. You can make art and be whatever you want. The color of your skin or your ethnic background doesn’t control your artistic future — or it shouldn’t. You might feel you have obligations but art is about freedom.
HappeningsCLT: Where can we see some of your work in Charlotte?
MR: Currently, I have work at the McColl Center which is connected to over ten years of research and my interests which relate to climate, although I don’t think the show is really about climate change anymore because I think we are post-climate change. Things already happened and the idea of talking about the future doesn’t make sense because the future is happening right now. My two-month residency at the Anchorage Museum was instrumental in expanding my understanding of Arctic issues in particular, which relates to economy, postcolonialism, the military, and the industrial revolution. I do hesitate to explain the show because in my opinion the show is very much open to interpretation. I have particular interests and want to point them out but there is no message, there is no real agenda. I think this is a very interesting time historically and those changes which are quite dramatic are what I want to generally talk about in the show. It’s like a poem. What is the poem about? I don’t want to know what the poem is about, I want to experience it myself.
HappeningsCLT: Can you talk about the juxtaposition of the footage in the video work – the shots from local Nascar races mixed in with these really beautiful, panning images of the Arctic.
MR: Most of the video is using Nascar sound, as a kinda memento or reminder because I live here and this environment defines me even though I look at other issues. Nascar is symbolically used to define the way our civilization or culture entertains ourselves. Nascar culture in particular represents this addiction to technology and the use of energy. But it’s not really about making fun of Nascar because we are all driving cars. We don’t necessarily go to the races but we spend our lives in huge parking lots. So it’s our reality and Nascar is a caricature of it, an exaggeration of it.
HappeningsCLT: But Nascar has become a symbol of the South for people who don’t live in the South.
MR: Artists have a tendency to take the high ground…those are bad people, those are bad things that are happening, but we are not above it. We are equally participating in all of this stuff. We use air conditioning every summer for 24 hours a day. This is a trivial example, but we are embedded in this. We can make commentary but we cannot say we are better.
HappeningsCLT: What book is on your nightstand right now?
MR: I am reading a number of books at the same time. One that I am finishing right now is the Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Colbert. She is a New York writer. It’s a very interesting book about massive extinctions of species. This also relates to climate but it’s mostly due to human activity. I am reading books about ethics, climate and environment. I am also reading a very interesting short paper about the possibility of another Cold War written by a Pentagon researcher. I really don’t read fiction that often. And I also have on my nightstand Ecce Homo, a book of drawings by George Grosz. I always feel like I don’t know anything so if I’m reading fiction I’m wasting time. I feel like I need to learn something.
HappeningsCLT: What do you think is the most valuable experience in the Carolinas?
MR: This is a difficult question. There is a very interesting, international group of artists at the McColl Center right now and that’s probably one of the most contemporary experiences right now in this area.
HappeningsCLT: Best meal in Charlotte?
MR: I don’t know the answer. The best meal is probably in my house but that’s kind of boring as an answer. I don’t have any favorite restaurants but we eat a lot of ethnic food. We eat Indian, Thai…you can just say I don’t eat at all, I’m overweight.
HappeningsCLT: What’s next with your work?
MR: I am working on a couple of projects, one is actually here in Charlotte. I am working with June Lambla on a project focusing on creeks. I am producing a film which will interview local religious leaders talking about religion and the ethics of environmental issues. There is a whole new movement among Christians and other religions to define what is good stewardship of nature. It relates to the environmental movement and the earth they are going to leave to their grandchildren, which is going to be a disaster. There is an interest in the moral/ethical aspect of how you are treating the environment, in the context of your faith. If you dump, for example, oil from your car on the street, is it a sin? From the creek, the water runs to the river; the river runs to the ocean.
I’m working with a professor of religious studies at UNCC and we are going to use the symbol of water which is used in almost all religions, but we want to extend beyond traditional religions. So we will talk to many different religious leaders, including witches and Native Americans. The show will be at the Projective Eye Gallery.
Another project is still ongoing in the Arctic. I am working with Joan Kane, a native Alaskan writer, on a documentary play about climate-displaced community. This is a really big project, at least two or three years of work. We have started the initial research but I hope we will have major progress in the Spring of 2015 and that it will be a multimedia installation, a play…we’ll see how this will develop. I have actually collected a lot of video material. I have enough material to produce a film but then because of my research I met so many people and realized that this issue has already been covered by the media, mostly European media. Almost every person I was interviewing has already been interviewed by other TV stations. But it’s the same problem: the stories are always told by an outsider – the researchers, either anthropologists, environmentalists, journalists, or artists, like me, and it’s always the same stories. I don’t want to do that. I want a native writer to write the story, control the narrative, and tell the stories through her eyes because she is also a victim of a similar story. Joan is from King’s Island. In the 1950s the whole village was relocated by the US government, so this idea of displacement is very close to her but also she is much more part of the community. So she will control the narrative much more than I will. I will provide visuals and I will work with her but I want this to be told through her voice. Additionally, we will try to use a very diverse group of artists to take this away from the idea of native first nation suffering because this is a universal story. It’s not just a story of “those” people; the same story will happen all over the world. The play will probably premier in Alaska and we will try to show it in other places. So often, we are preaching the same stories to a mostly liberal crowd at galleries and museums but we are not necessarily focusing on the art crowd. My goal is to present the play at the Arctic Council which is an intergovernmental body meeting in different locations and they control the Arctic on some level.
HappeningsCLT: So often that’s the case with art intertwined with activism. We’re essentially preaching to the choir.
MR: But I am not an activist. I am a constant contrarian and will always question the issues. None of these issues are really black and white. Some of the communities will be forced to relocate and some will gain more access, better job opportunities, and amazing new investment will come. It’s almost difficult to define what’s bad and what’s good…the nuance of the story is much more interesting and this is the side never presented by the media.
Perhaps these nuances – and Marek’s ability to present the many facets of a story without preaching – is what keeps us so engaged in his work. We can’t wait to see what he creates for KEEPING WATCH on Water: City of Creeks. The exhibition will premier at UNCC’s Projective Eye Gallery next Spring..