Marek Ranis — Back from the Arctic

By Lauren Phillips
Marek1Marek 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.

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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.

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An Army of Five Climb the Fourth Wall

By Lauren Phillips

Five outrageously talented actors team up to conquer the fourth wall as the Department of Theater at UNC Charlotte features Actors from the London Stage on their Fall 2013 tour of Othello by William Shakespeare. The players perform from Oct. 16-19 in Robinson Hall’s Anne R. Belk Theater, working collaboratively without a director to recreate Shakespeare’s genius with an emphasis on a high degree of proficient acting abilities and communication with each other.

Amidst the minimal set design, consisting of one semicircle of gathered white fabric, the production asks your imagination to fill in blank spaces in conjunction with the play. The five British actors, all veterans of London’s finest theatre companies, are talented and well-rehearsed. They demand the audience’s engagement by stepping in and out of the circle or through subtle outfit changes that symbolize different characters. Jude Akuwudike (Othello), Alinka Wright (Desdemona), Jan Shepherd (Roderigo), Jack Whitam (Cassio), and Richard Neal (Iago) share equal talent, making this the crux of why this rendition of Othello so successful.

The structure somewhat mimics the show Whose Line Is it Anyway? by alternating the actor’s various roles throughout the play, though without the element of improvisation. Any character not in a scene sits behind the circle and supports the actors on stage by using mood-setters like cricket noise-makers and singing bowls to connect the dialogue with a secondary sensory experience.

Akuwudike delivers a well-executed performance especially when depicting the lead’s most iconic characteristic, jealousy. He played the part like his career depended on it, led down the road to damnation by Neal’s deceptive Iago. Cassio  executes a stark contrast to Iago’s character as he plays another victim of the villain’s calculated plan. The well-choreographed fight scenes are filled with realistic slaps and grappling, making this long-gone world more believable.

If an artist cleverly uses negative space to give viewers a momentary break from traveling around the picture plane, these actors should adopt a similar strategy. Over-acting in a few of the early scenes exhausts viewers with no time to reset themselves to prepare for the next scene.

Clearly these top-of-the line actors are high quality, creative, and passionate, but the ground they cover isn’t smooth enough to keep up with. The audience is spoiled with talent and given no time or space to interpret the fullness of Othello’s story. The program does not list the order of each act, only a blurb about the story of Othello inhibiting the viewer from following an out-lined pace set by the director. For those who do not know the story’s ending — learn it immediately from reading the program before the play starts.

Enduring the three-hour play will produce an appreciation for live performance and serve as a challenge to actively engage mentally with the actors throughout the play. These five British Shakespearean actors make the story of Othello come to life in a contemporary, original, and dynamic way.

Sophie’s Choice: Meryl Streep’s Master Performance

Sophies Choice

By Lauren Phillips

Suicide, drug abuse, the death of children, mental illness, affairs, and the Holocaust comprise the central conflicts from the screenplay, Sophie’s Choice, based on William Styron’s 1979 novel.  Styron wrote Sophie’s Choice 34 years after the Nazi atrocities of World War II, and it wasn’t made into a feature film until 1982. That time-lag seems natural for the depth of that horror to be re-visited on an individual scale and made for public viewing. Much like the U.S. soldier or other serviceman returning today from a hostile nation and suffering post-traumatic stress disorder, Styron’s heroine Sophie is similarly haunted forever by what she’s witnessed – and, more importantly – done.

The Holocaust is the central tragedy in the film, but it is not told from a Jewish perspective. Streep’s performance is both believable and unbelievable — she gave all of herself and made viewers believe every frame.  This was the role that put Streep, considered one of this era’s great actors, on the map.  Much of that praise came from her performance in the film’s most wrenching scene, when the Nazis force Streep to choose which of her children lives and which dies, explaining the crippling severity of her guilt throughout the film.

After surviving Auschwitz, Sophie is presumably saved a second time by Nathan, a charming gentleman who sweeps her off her feet — or, more accurately, catches her after passing out in the library.  The couple falls in love, and Sophie sees Nathan as her hero for rescuing her from her painful, secretive decision and past suffering.

Kevin Kline plays Nathan, whose pendulum of emotions keeps watchers anxious each time the door opens. That’s especially true when he walks into his own study and finds Sophie bearing her burdens with another man.  Nathan has two distinct sides: the extremely considerate and loving one, and the cocaine user unable to control his temper.  His violent mood swings create an unstable living condition, witnessed in detail by the new tenant living below them, Stingo (Peter MacNicol), who narrates the film.

From a small Southern farm, Stingo, in the spirit of Walt Whitman, journeys his way to Brooklyn in the hopes of becoming the next great writer.  He eventually becomes the couple’s closest friend, captivated by Nathan’s worldly ways and Sophie’s beauty.  A true southern gentleman, Stingo listens to Sophie’s tragedies, lies, audacious courage, faults, and triumphs, and inevitably falls for her. This contrasts with Nathan’s increasingly cruel behavior. Stingo pleads for Sophie to love him in return, a decision which mirrors the first, and more tragic, of Sophie’s choices.

What is especially uncanny about Streep’s performance is her ability to create empathy through fear and anguish, always inferring that the viewer does not know every detail.  Flashbacks are used for Sophie’s back-story, and though her wrist is literally branded, Sophie — who as a Pole is not immune to the anti-Semitism of the era —in more than one instance ensures that everyone around her knows it.  Shame and guilt follow her because of the lies that hide the actual events that transpired before coming to America.

The closest she comes to becoming open is when she allows Stingo to see her vulnerability during the confession scene. Sophie and Stingo’s relationship enables them to come to terms with both affliction and affection; storytelling enables them to “feel” again. Their friendship blooms and allows them into the dimly lit corridors of each other’s heart to share what has affected them deeply.  As a result, we not only know the story but also feel its heavy weight, and witness the brevity of human life.  In the end, Sophie chooses to be loyal to Nathan, the one who never knew her true story.

A film of this magnitude charges viewers, in a contemporary sense, to re-examine current events from another perspective.  Styron’s novel intersects beauty and horror with reverence.  Moreover, re-evaluating his novel and the film challenges readers to reject silence as a form of healing,  encouraging a re-interpretation of past events in this post 9/11 era.  For our future, it is better to acknowledge the past so that individual choices create a sum of better choices.  As Hannah Arendt, who told us about the banality of evil, wrote, “What I propose, therefore, is very simple: it is nothing more than to think what we are doing.”

“Do No Harm” Broke the Oath

By Lauren Phillips

Do No Harm, a modern adaptation on the classic Dr.  Jekyll and Mr. Hyde story, is a program that ultimately does do harm—to a person’s free time. The NBC show has all the elements that should make for great television, with seasoned actors and a promising plot. Unfortunately, the concept falls short because blending those elements together results in a hodgepodge show that doesn’t know what it wants to be — a bit like its main character.

The show’s protagonist, Doctor Jason Cole (Steven Pasquale), becomes “evil party-animal” Ian Price at 8:25 p.m. every night with stressful 24-like countdowns. Jason is a prisoner to dissociative identity disorder, and has learned to escape his inconsiderate alter-ego by knocking him out every night with an elixir a hospital colleague comes up with.

But things quickly go awry in the pilot when the drug’s effectiveness wears off, and Ian comes out to play. Ian’s lack of emotion, violent outbreaks, and unreasonable living habits create persistent conflict for both, though it’s the good doctor who’s left to clean up Ian’s messes. Cole first struggles to use Ian’s violence for good, with mixed results. For instance, in the second episode,  Cole uses Ian’s fearless grit to pulverize a cop who abuses his wife. But Ian makes it his goal to screw up the doctor’s well-manicured life, and eventually Cole works toward killing off Ian.

Problems with the show abound. The pharmacologist attempts to increase the potency of the drug to cure Cole in each episode, but the repeat scene leads only to dizzying déjà vu. Alternating between an angel and pure evil induces frustration, too, mostly due to the stark contrast of characters sketched through exaggeration. At 8:25 p.m., Cole’s eyes begin to pulsate and his teeth begin to clench, setting up the transition to Ian. Then, at 8:25 in the morning, Cole reappears, Ian’s night-fun recalled through CSI-style flashbacks and self-recorded videos. The music is never subtle, either, and the multiple fast cuts to the alarm clock that fast forward us to the next scene are a distraction.

The doctor goes to great lengths to avoid conflict, even hiring a taxi to take Ian as far as he can from the doctor’s life to a motel. He hides his credit card and instructs the clerk to walk away if he sees him later. But the doctor forgot to hide the phone number of his love interest, Lena (Alana de la Garza), who’s lured by Ian to the inelegant motel and soon learns of Cole’s foreboding side.

But the show’s biggest problem is its basic premise. The audience is asked to believe that a neurosurgeon can be unreachable 12 hours a day and yet achieve significant success in his field. Amidst allegedly intelligent fellow doctors, not one can detect his ailment, either. Other scenes leave the audience bewildered, such as when Cole encounters Ian’s easy-going drug lords who are willing to wait for payment and essentially allow a stranger to borrow an expensive car.

Do No Harm should stick to being a psychological drama instead of trying to be too many things to viewers. It aims to have the wit of Hugh Laurie’s House character, the popularity and hospital drama of ER, and the action of the cable series Burn Notice. Instead, it winds up being none of these things and ultimately suffers an identity disorder of its own.

DIANA — Perpetual Surrender

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By Lauren Phillips

The opening lyrics ­- “Oversaturated and underwhelmed…” – to DIANA’s Perpetual Surrender foreshadows the entirety of the latest album from the newly formed Canadian band.  The fusing of each individual member’s background creates psychedelic, experimental, cerebral, and mood-altering music.

Glimpses of musical proficiency and compelling lyrics are heard in tracks such as “Born Again.” Contravening the trance-inducing music, the lyrics “Now’s the time for believing/ Lay your hands on me I need healing/ Born again tonight” emerge.  But too many tracks sound unrelated, as if the singing is incorporated as an afterthought, secondary to the music.  Carmen Elle’s voice sounds like a happier version of Lana del Ray during “Born Again”; ironically, Ray’s hit single was “Born to Die.”  In “Anna,” Elle transforms her voice into MIA and still later in the record she mimics an indie Norah Jones during “New House.”  Despite the indiscernible lyrics, the common theme is revealed of searching for something unknown yet potentially devastating in hopes of discovering meaning.  But a competing myriad of looping random sound effect-like noises weaken the message.

On these eight songs, Elle’s strong voice is hidden behind a barrage of unnecessary instruments. Combining the 80s love song inspirations with modern electronic interpretations, the saxophone appears in several songs in bizarre ways.  An upbeat percussion solo transitioning to a sci-fi black hole of reverb leftovers sets apart “Strange Attraction,” one of the most distinct tracks.  Lingering, over-synthesized notes found in the melody of “That Feeling” overstay their welcome, too.

By the time you’ve reached the end, “New House” fades into a bombardment of glitches that prompts the listener to question if a malfunction has occurred.  The music is unresolved with abrupt endings, competing sounds, muffled lyrics, and over-synthesized instrumentation.  Imagine 10 different singing greeting cards playing at once.

Yet something magical happens at least once in each track. The frustration with the record is the desire to hear those brilliant moments extended into full songs.  The Jagjaguwar label band is debuting an overall ambitious yet unrefined album. DIANA should focus their energies on showing listeners how well the foursome sound together, instead of how “strange” of an attraction they have with synthesized noise.