By Lauren Phillips
Marek Ranis has just returned from a two-month working trip in Alaska. Back at his Charlotte home, he unpacks a heavy winter coat, a headlamp, and camera equipment. His occupation may come as a surprise. Ranis is an artist, one of four chosen for an eight-week Rasmuson Foundation Artist in Residency stint after being nominated by the McColl Center, where he was a previous artist-in-residence from 1999-2001. Now that Ranis has returned, he’ll be finishing the artwork appropriately titled “Arctic Utopia” inspired by his Alaskan stay.
A native of Poland living in the United States, the 45-year-old Ranis has a unique perspective about his environment. Spend any amount of time around him and you sense his fervent energy, hear his insights, and become aware of his passion for artistic exploration. He teaches sculpture and installation art at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, where he holds the position of assistant professor of art. In 1995, he received an MFA with honors from the Academy of Fine Arts in Wroclaw, Poland. There he met his wife, Maja Godlewska, who is a visual artist also based in Charlotte, N.C.
The relationship of scientists to their research is similar to that of artists and their observations. Ranis is foremost an artist but also an explorer, researcher, interpreter, activist, and conversationalist. This multi-talented artist does not limit himself to one particular medium or issue. He is a sculptor, image maker, videographer, painter, and whatever else he decides to be.
“The way I am working will be dealing with some issues and the content dictates the form,” Ranis says of his approach. Works he creates touch on social, political, environmental, and ecological issues. He does not intend to tackle the totality of an issue, as he acknowledges its complexity. Rather, his works present facets of larger conversations.
A common thread in his work is the engagement of political, social, and ecological conversations with viewers, especially in places that, he says, “are uncommon travel destinations” like the Arctic. Ranis isn’t exactly a novice when it comes to cold locales – in addition to growing up in Poland, he did a residency in Greenland in 2009 where he became interested in examining climate warming issues.
The focus of his current work examines a post-colonial relationship to global warming, like Americans’ romanticized notions of the Arctic as undeveloped land. In the photos, sublime landscape imagery is juxtaposed with romanticized forms. Ranis’ on-going series titled “Albedo” or Whiteness, began in 2004 with Ranis examining a post-colonial environment and global climate changes inspired by the 2002 Larsen Ice Shelf collapse in the north-western part of the Weddell Sea of the Antarctic Peninsula south of Chile. Albedo, the measurement of reflectivity of surface, shows the diminishing snow and ice to support the existence and reality of global warming.
Ranis is influenced by the notion of people maintaining an idealistic view of landscape. “Kunstwissenschaft,” an exhibition last year in CPCC’s Ross Gallery, show a series of mirrored and manipulated images from Greenland’s icebergs printed on aluminum. This work merges beautiful forms with sublime undertones presenting the uncomfortable reality of disappearing arctic environments.
As far as residencies goes, Ranis’ view isn’t a static one – he doesn’t simply move his studio into another region and stay inside working from premeditated plans or his imagination. Instead, his approach to art-making includes miles and miles spent on foot, at sea on a ship, and driving the open roads. Action, adventure, and awareness navigate his conceptual practice. What satisfies this artist is not so much changing the opinion of his viewer as it is instigating conversation and constructing a moment of personal reflection through directly viewing the work.
As Ranis imbeds himself in a new community, the environment informs the work he creates. Speaking of his most current residency, he says, “I was surprised by many things. I never assume I know anything when I go places even if I spend half of the year reading or researching.”
Artist residencies provide Marek with an opportunity to explore a geographic region. The Rasmuson Foundation Artist in Residency program, launched in 2013, is designed to provide artists with a cultural experience that can spark new work to create more awareness of Alaska. Art organizations from the Lower 48 states such as Charlotte’s McColl Center, Zygote Press (Cleveland, OH), Djerassi Resident Artist Program (Woodside, CA), and Santa Fe Artist Institute (Santa Fe, NM) nominate candidates for the program.
For this particular residency, the time allotted for traveling the region produces experiential knowledge unparalleled to observations read in books. Little premeditated artwork plans are made beforehand. Upon landing in the Arctic, Ranis lets the people dictate, to a degree, what he chooses to make work about. In his process the content controls the medium. As an inter-disciplinarian artist, he chooses which medium would best work for his concept.
During the two-month residency his day-to-day activities varied. Travel is a critical component of the work he creates and this residency made it possible for him to visit many different places in the Arctic region. The Anchorage Museum gave him access to its Historical Collection so he could refer to the archives for research; he was also assigned five staff members to assist him. The museum is both a historical and contemporary museum housing old artefacts with new works of art made by Native people and contemporary artists. Ranis’ new work, “Arctic Utopia,” will feature pieces made from this Rasmuson Artist Residency program.
Ranis also attended the Arctic Energy Summit in Iceland focusing on energy policy in the Arctic region. There, he discovered that for the most part climate change refugees are well-covered subjects by the media in Alaska, but he also saw a lack of recognition in the continental U.S. about aggressive climate changes. Initially, his focus was on the people who were forced to relocate due to severe storm flooding. Then his project shifted, as he was interested in how people in native cultures perceive these changes in the context of thousands of years. Since the people of small geographic regions hunt on the land, they are keenly aware of changes — namely, the melting ice.
Ranis emphasizes that these changes will dramatically affect industrial activity and exploration of gas and oil. New commercial trade routes will be established. Paradoxically, this development could benefit the locals on a short-term basis by initiating a new economy and future opportunities. However, attention to the long-term effects on the environment’s resources will drastically diminish.
“They will pay a price for the industrial revolution,” he says. In Fairbanks, Ranis attended the three-day Alaska Federation of Natives conference where he was able to gather with the Native community to discuss political issues such as violence, education, energy development, and quality of life for Alaskans. There he interviewed one landowner of 30 years who told him so many things about the ways in which weather changes affected different animals.
Ranis had time to conduct interviews with a range of people, too. Initially, he thought the majority of interviews would come from local, native land owners who were effected by climate changes to their environment. However, his project exponentially grew. Through this he set up interviews with a variety of people including tribal leaders, lawyers, and politicians.
What struck him more than discussing issues with climate change refugees was the fact that the U.S. is largely behind other Arctic regions in both creating and implementing policies concerning the last colonial areas to be developed. “The U.S. in general, is unprepared in terms of how to deal with this new reality in the Arctic,” he says.
Ranis acknowledges the complexities of the international consequences of using the natural resources in the Arctic. While corporations are already tapping into these natural resources in the Arctic territory, according to Ranis the government has not taken any control. This issue will not only affect the land and displacement of the native population now, it will affect us on a global and long-term level.
Ranis was also chosen to be an “Artist in the Arctic” resident from Fall 2013 to Fall 2015, a pilot program aiming to create conversations about Alaska’s Arctic region through lectures, workshops, forums and publications in conjunction with the Institute of the North. The Anchorage Museum with whom Ranis closely worked during the Rasmuson Artist Residency chose him to be a part of this Northern Initiative Program after becoming more familiar with his work. While he was in the Arctic, he developed a number of relationships that will allow him to go back multiple times. Already he has been invited to London in February to speak for the Northern Initiative project at the University of Westminster.
“Our knowledge, understanding and perception of Alaska itself in the United States, the rest of the states, is so limited,” he says. “We have really no clue what is going on there. I am not talking about the energy and climate there. Native culture is extremely rich and it is so vibrant and fantastic. There are also a lot of issues related to social problems.”
As he creates work, Ranis hopes that people can understand how rich native history is and how interesting the culture is. “We have a tendency to see things from one side. I learned this many years ago when I was in Greenland,” he says. “Local communities decided that on some level this is a disaster but on another level this is opening up new opportunities and a new future for the country. I don’t think it is exactly the same way in Alaska, but on some level it is because people look at this as new opportunities for the environment which will allow new gas and energy development in the northern part of the country.”
Some artists don’t refrain from loudly declaring their opinion—Ranis does. He’d rather viewers form an opinion from the work he creates. Through his work in the Arctic, he brings awareness of climate changes by becoming an implanted native himself.