North Carolina and the Sublime North: An Artistic Interpretation of the Arctic

By Marek Ranis, multimedia environmental artist and Associate Professor of Art at the College of Art and Architecture at the University of North Carolina in Charlotte.

Romantic, 2010. (Image credit: Marek Ranis)

I grew up in Poland, which, as a central European country, is much closer to the Arctic than my current home of Charlotte, North Carolina. Gazing northward from Wrocław (pr. VROTZ-lav), the North Pole felt less distant. We had cold dark winters, with the Big Dipper and the North Star looming high above the dark horizon and cold Siberian weather fronts would bring the Arctic weather to our medieval city. Before I graduated from Wrocław’s Academy of Fine Arts and Design with my Master of Fine Arts and left the country, this was the only Arctic experience available to me. Although the distance from Poland to the Arctic Circle is less than 1000 miles, I was living behind the Iron Curtain, and it felt as unreachable to me as any destination. Traveling to Russia or the Russian Arctic — or anywhere too far-flung — was out of the question for average citizens.

Looking North from Behind the Iron Curtain

And yet, the Arctic was always present to us through literature, films, and the occasional news about the region. At school we read the work of socialist Jack London, author of the famous Klondike Gold Rush novels The Call of the Wild and White Fang. We were fed the ethos of early Polish expeditions and the great importance of the Polish scientific base on Spitsbergen, Norway. While doing that, we secretly looked at the images of U.S. submarines crashing through the ice in the “imperialist” and also hard to come by National Geographic Magazine. The Polish media never advertised the Soviet submarines in the region.

“Warmer-Colder,” 2008. A concrete and carpet installation by the author in his home town of Wrocław, Poland. (Photo credit: Marek

Looking back, no matter what side of the curtain you were on, representation of the North felt limited to the narrative about human resilience, the place for a white man’s romantic struggle, discovery, and ultimate adventure. The occasional image of a smiling Eskimo greeting the colonizers was offered mostly to reinforce stereotypes. Paradoxically, it took moving to the southern United States years later to fully understand our relationship to the Arctic and to better understand how the Arctic affects our lives.

As an artist, my creative work and research has always been focused on environmental issues — maybe this is not a surprising choice for someone from Europe, heavily devastated by centuries of agricultural and industrial development. In retrospect, perhaps an intuitive awareness of what we now call the Anthropocene — our current geological age when human activity is affecting the Earth — was always with me, perhaps awakened in my childhood by a soothing voice of Sir Richard Attenborough, the famous British naturalist whose programs were aired on Polish TV.

Coming to the United States helped me to see and appreciate the world differently than from my Eurocentric, singular point of view. The world suddenly became much bigger, more complex and diverse. My own perception broadened and I started to understand that an ethnocentric perspective was inadequate to comprehend global environmental issues. At the end of 20th century — probably for the first time in human history — humanity started to recognized that there is a singular global phenomenon which affects all of us, everywhere and like never before: climate change.

People in traditional parkas face modern industrial development on Alaska’s North Slope. Photographic series based on the Anchorage Museum Collection.

Environmental cultural and political developments in the North have naturally become the focus of my artistic practice. In my work, the initial melancholy over the disappearance of polar ice was replaced with a much broader interest and knowledge about the North. I researched the Arctic, its environment, and peoples. Reading Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports led to books about glaciation and the surprising physics of ice, the history of little ice ages, and human migration in the north to colonial history of the Arctic. A never ending collection of complex and interconnected stories of Arctic, like the mysterious fate of early Norsmen colony in Greenland which made me think more about our fate in the face of climate change and our ability to adapt.

From the Albedo Carpets series, hand made carpet 6’x6’. (Image credit: Marek Ranis)

Interviewing Eskimologists, anthropologists, and climatologists gave me better understanding of native culture and the amazing surviving skills and adaptability of the indigenous peoples of our earth’s coldest climes. By talking with a climatologist who works at the Spitzbergen Research Base in Norway, I learned about the Urban Heat Island –a phenomenon observed everywhere around the world from Tromsø, Norway to Charlotte, North Carolina. Travels to the most sublime landscapes of Greenland, Iceland, and Alaska allowed me not only to observe and document polar landscapes, but more importantly, to interview native traditional hunters and native activist artists and story tellers — people whose traditional knowledge about the land was passed down for generations and often cannot be learned through books. Participating in the Arctic Circle Assembly in Reykjavik, Iceland, in the Alaska Federation of Natives Convention in Alaska, and a few other conferences gave me the chance to explore the deeper social, economic, political, and environmental challenges and opportunities recognized in the North. For me, when speaking with Singapore’s Ambassador to the Arctic and learning about Singapore’s economic hopes for the Arctic, the top of the world suddenly became the center of the world.

The Arctic was and is perpetually feeding our imagination from an endless pool of resources and opportunities.

Learning more about the postcolonial reality of the region, a quest for more accessible Arctic resources, and the anthropology of climate change allowed me to see a much more consequential connection between myself and the south to the life and the events the Arctic.

Transforming Arctic Inspiration into Art

This greater understanding of the Arctic influenced my art. In 2004 as I started working on the art project and body of work Albedo, the Polar Regions and the Arctic became for me the place to explore and observe a multitude of aftereffects of climate change as it was unraveling. Derived from the Latin albus, or “white”, albedo is a scientific term that refers to the extent to which the light reflects off a surface. Ice, like that found at the poles, has a high albedo, reflecting the sun’s rays. As the ice melts and disappears, it reveals the dark sea beneath, which has a low albedo, and absorbs the sun’s rays. This then speeds up the warming of the ocean.

Pieces from the Albedo paintings series, 2004–2007, mixed media on canvas. (Image credit: Marek Ranis)

At some point I had to stop looking at the photographs and go experience these northern places first-hand. My first trip to Alaska — the farthest north I’d ever been before — was in 2005 to create a video and photo documentation of several Alaskan glaciers, allowed for a more personal encounter.

No more looking at remote imagery. Instead I witnessed the actual transformation in the environment and learned from Alaskans who could easily point out the obvious changes around them. My subsequent opportunities to work as artist-researcher in Iceland, Greenland, and Alaska led me to question and examine my own relation to region and its people. Why this subject matter and what is the relevance of Arctic issues for the people around me back home?

In a still from the author’s film ‘Hold On,’ a NASCAR race left, is juxtaposed with an iceberg. (Image still from Hold On by Marek Ranis).

One of the first challenging attempts to explore this question was this film. “Hold On,” which seeks to discover the relation between the NASCAR racing in Charlotte, North Carolina and icebergs in Northern Greenland. NASCAR is the most popular motors sport in NC and The United States. Is there any meaning in the juxtaposition of those two absolutely foreign realities? Maybe the bizarre and surreal quality of speeding among melting icebergs to the sound of stock car racing creates in fact the most realistic representation of our time.

The video was made thanks to the residency at the Upernavik Museum, Upernavik, Greenland, supported by the University of North Carolina, Charlotte, and by the American-Scandinavia Foundation.

In 2009–2010, through my project Arrival, I decided to confront the postcolonial reality of Greenland and their dependence on Danish support against the new opportunities for Greenlanders to gain access to natural resources due to melting ice and permafrost. I found that climate change surprisingly becomes associated with economic emancipation for the most Northern nations.

“Arrival Greenland” a performance in Upernavik, Greenland in 2009. (Photo credit: Marek Ranis)

In one of my most recent bodies of work, the photographic series Arctic Utopia, I wanted to address the polar paradox between Alaskan dependency on oil exploration and consumption vis-à-vis environmental concerns. The series, inspired by the perspective of new oil exploration in the Arctic and the opening of the Northern Sea Route, questions the promises of industry leaders and Arctic nation politicians. I will never forget the concerns of young Alaska Native whalers in Barrow about growing shipping and drilling activities in the Chukchi and Beaufort Sea but, at same time, appreciative of the new well-paid jobs on the Alaskan North Slope.

Arctic Utopia series, 2014 (Image credit: Marek Ranis)

North to the Future…of the South

For most of us familiar with the southeastern coast of the United States in early 2000’s, it was still difficult to recognize the changes in the environment or even agree on what was causing the dramatic weather events and coastal erosion we were experiencing. The topic of climate change in North Carolina was as remote and surreal as satellite images of the collapsing ice shelves that I used for my paintings.

The satellite images of the polar landscape that I collected from NASA’s website created a symbolic connection between my life and places I had never seen. I started feeling an artistic urgency to capture those images. Realizing more every year that the lack of summer ice in the Arctic would impact our lives as we know it. Suddenly, those abstract patterns of ice floating somewhere around Greenland (or in Antarctica) were not that remote and ethereal. Painting the ice of the Arctic in my Charlotte studio was an act of making more tangible a representation of the Weltschmerz, a world weariness we could feel facing the enormous scale of this phenomena, yet feeling powerless and distant.

NASA’s satellite images of polar ice — like this from 2002 of collapse of the Larsen B ice shelf in Antarctica—directly inspired the author’s work. (Image credit: NASA)

Maybe there is the risk that the Arctic as a canary in the coalmine for climate change has become a global cultural cliché like the image of a malnourished white bear drifting on an ice floe. There is a risk that people, too often bombarded by the slow motion footage of calving glaciers, will become immune to such emotional triggers. The full-scale of what is happening is not fully understood nor comprehended.

Now when Climate Debate in our country is back on the front page it feels like it is the high time for more meaningful and thoughtful engagement in the North. The United States as Arctic nation has great responsibility in the Arctic. And we and our lives all depend on what is happening there.

Kivanrepu:Kivanrepu, 7 min. Par of the Albedo – Greenland series of works by the author. Video: recorded in the Upernavik Ice Fiord in northwestern Greenland; sound: recorded during a National Association of Stock Car Racing (NASCAR) race in North Carolina. In the video loop, the sublime images of icebergs and their reflections are contrasted with a modified sound from the most popular motor sport in the United States. (Video credit: Marek Ranis)

Perhaps that what is presently occurring in the North might tell us more about the future of the South.

Looking up from the South to the far North we might see the human connection while sharing a common destiny. Our environments, our daily lives, suddenly are exposed to the same challenges and uneasiness.

Recently in North Carolina dramatic weather events, rising sea levels, and growing average temperatures are more relatable communicators of climate change than calving glaciers or thawing permafrost of the tundra. Now more than ever my state has become a climate laboratory. Even without directly observing the Arctic’s melting ice, we see animal and plant zone migration and the challenges of near future human resettlement.

Melancholia, 2007, Baer Foundation, Iceland. (Image credit: Marek Ranis)

Contrasts between an Alaskan native village and North Carolina Outerbanks are mitigated by similarities. There are common qualities in our relation with an environment and its overwhelming forces often pushing aside cultural and social differences. Just like in subsistence life of Shishmaref, in touristy Outer Banks the ocean has been claiming land; forces of nature acutely try both places and are indifferent to the economical status or ethnic makeup of people affected.

“Like Shishmaref,” 2016. The author’s film is simple visual juxtaposition of geography and people’s lives with the hope of a connection and meaning. This story started in Alaska as the first North American communities are facing an emergency relocation due to climate change. But it is not local, rare or remote: just like in Shishmaref, thousands of people face the same imminent decision. (Video credit: Marek Ranis)

The short film Like Shishmaref is the result of a long-standing professional relationship with the Anchorage Museum and their generous support of my research in the Arctic and the support of the College of Arts and Architecture of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte where I teach today. It is about a remote barrier island in Chukchi Sea, north of the Bering Straits in Alaska and The Outer Banks, a string of barrier islands off the Coast of North Carolina. Thousands of miles apart, both geographically and culturally, these two places share the same destiny — rising sea water levels jeopardizing the lives of both communities, already struggling on very low-lying sea coasts. Yet the responses to the unavoidable for both Alaskans and North Carolinians are very different. This connection between one of the most distant communities in North America and one close to home is for me very representative of what many coastal communities in United States and in the world are now facing.

“Retreat,” an installation at Bank of America Plaza in Charlotte, North Carolina. (Photo credit: Marek Ranis)
A still from the author’s 2016 film, “Like Shishmaref.” The Outer Banks in North Carolina, where rising sea levels and beach erosion are threatening houses. (Photo credit: Marek Ranis)

Shishmaref’s community heavily depends on subsistence living. The villagers who mostly hunt and fish for their food have also a very strong cultural and spiritual bond with the land. They depend on the land to survive economically but also culturally. Similar things could be said about Carolina coastal communities, which depend mainly on tourism industries.

The disappearing barrier islands in Alaska and North Carolina are not regional or unusual cases of dramatic change in the environment. Alaska and North Carolina are now among the thousands of ephemeral coastlines around the world.

The Singular, the Sublime, and the Silly

I used to find inspiration in the singular romantic onlookers of Caspar David Friedrich’s paintings from the 19th Century. Created at the time of great discoveries and hope about the future, these paintings were partly a symbol of an optimistic expectation of the Prussian naturalist Humboldt’s unraveling of the world, partly an expression of weariness and melancholy. I believe those images are very contemporary, we can all relate to the picture of man looking at the enormous landscape, seeking the answer about an uncertain future or maybe, longing for a cherished past.

“Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog” by 19th C. German landscape painter Caspar David Friedrich. (Image Credit: Wikimedia Commons)

In my artistic response to this piece, I decided to replace the man gazing at the horizon with a taxidermy of an African animal looking at a glacial landscape, which I would compare with my own gaze at the polar landscape. I feel equally exotic and out of place, yet strangely connected or drawn to what I see, in awe of the most beautiful and terrifying landscape — The Sublime.

For this 2010 series, which I call Romantic, I took photographs of the extensive collection of African taxidermy animals at the natural science museum in the Museum of York County in Rock Hill, South Carolina and placed them on images of ice in Greenland, Alaska, and Iceland.

This series, however, is unlike Friedrich’s composite painting of a Wanderer, the melancholic conqueror looking into the hopeful future. My work is actually a farewell, depicting an animal and a landscape that no longer exist. The ice in my images has already melted. The taxidermy animal is just a shadow of a once-living creature. The viewer is looking at a change that has already happened. Finally, we recognize that although a thousand miles apart, both environments depend on each other.

Romantic, 2010. (Image credit: Marek Ranis)

This takes me back to the beginning of this text: our Western, or Southern, gaze at the Sublime North is still mostly driven by the need for a mythical extreme playground, a stage for the ultimate test of our physical and mental resilience. This is where many of us love to believe, we can discover and measure our limits and be rewarded by simply staying alive.

A test which might look silly to people who call this place home.

At once admired, feared, and desired, the North is present in our peripheral vision no matter where we are. The North was always there: a possible last resort, still somehow uncharted, an antipodal colonial promise, an eternal romantic destination. The Arctic was and is perpetually feeding our imagination from an endless pool of resources and opportunities.

But maybe there is a difference now. Looking up from the South to the far North we might see the human connection while sharing a common destiny. Our environments, our daily lives, suddenly are exposed to the same challenges and uneasiness.

Maybe we are much closer to the Arctic than we thought.

Photo by Tim Remick.

About the Author: Marek Ranis is an Associate Professor of Art at the College of Art and Architecture, at the University of North Carolina, Charlotte as well as a multi-media environmental artist. Through sculpture, installation, painting, photography and video, over last 20 years Ranis has explored social, political and anthropological aspects of phenomena such as the climate change. He is a recipient of numerous grants, fellowships and residencies, including UNESCO Aschberg Fellowship, American-Scandinavian Foundation Grant and NC Artist Fellowship Award. Ranis presented his work in more than hundred individual and group shows nationally and internationally. Since 2004 Ranis has been working on artistic project and research titled Albedo focused on global climate change, continuing working in Alaska, Iceland, Greenland, Australia and South Africa. You can reach him at mpranis@uncc.edu.

To see more of Marek’s work you can visit ranismarek.squarespace.com

With special thanks to:

University of North Carolina Charlotte, College of Art + Architecture; The Anchorage Museum at Rasmuson Center; McColl Center for Art + Innovation

Like what you read? Give US Arctic a round of applause.

From a quick cheer to a standing ovation, clap to show how much you enjoyed this story.