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The times they are a-changin'

'White Supremacy' art exhibit mines racial shifts, climate change



The title of artist Marek Ranis' exhibit, White Supremacy — The End, could be misinterpreted. It isn't built around the idea of racism being dead in the South; after all, we've seen Ku Klux Klan members and neo-Nazis rally in Charlotte as recently as November 2012. But in more general terms of global powers, the show addresses the melting pot of races and ethnicities that make up the plate of prevailing nations. And in conjunction with its focus on the emergence of these global powers, it also contains a critical message about the crisis of climate change.

Ranis, a native of Poland, teaches art, sculpture and art history at UNC Charlotte. When he's not in the classroom, he's usually in his studio or trekking across the globe pursuing new ideas for his artwork. Past projects have taken him on explorations through Iceland, Greenland, India and Australia.

Research led him to analyze post-colonialism and its role in contemporary times — particularly reflective of Western (and predominantly white) control shifting to other nations. Ranis believes a series of events, including World War II and the collapse of the Iron Curtain, have led to the rising economical abundance in countries like China, Brazil and India.

"The title might sound like a provocation, and in a sense it is, to consider this moment and think about it," Ranis explains. "There's also a number of overlapping issues that are much more broad and complex related to climate change. I'm not trying to resolve those issues, just trying to understand and perhaps grasp some of those aspects through my art."

The exhibit consists of digitally manipulated images (photographs of Ranis' sculptures that are superimposed with historic aerial photographs) and plaster and graphite sculptures. For inspiration, he often uses images of melting glacial formations and photographs taken before and after World War II in his native hometown of Wrocaw.

Wrocaw (called Breslau before the war) was a stronghold during World War II, a time when terror and destruction reigned supreme. But often overlooked is the critical effect that this era of history had on other nations' growth as opposed to just the hardships. For many third world countries, Ranis explains, these events marked a period of change and independence after the British Empire declined in power.

Some of the sculptures showcased in the exhibit mimic icebergs, while others resemble baroque sculptures and bunkers. Feelings surrounding the economical and political landscape seem woven with the idea of a rapid climate change, both of which pose the notion of an ending to what we now know.

The exhibit also showcases Ranis' latest video project, The Tourist. The 10-minute film, shot in home video style, captures footage from the slums of Mumbai, India, in juxtaposition with images of the Great Barrier Reef in northern Queensland, Australia. Sounds of diving are imposed over scenes of the city, while sounds of the city are imposed over underwater scenes of the coral reef system.

"It's interesting," Ranis says. "I filmed the slums in juxtaposition with the coral reef, which was kind of on the verge of collapse. But the slums were an extremely vibrant place where the people were very energized by economic opportunities. There was a lot of production going on. It was not a place of desperation or gloom in any way."

An important aspect of this film is related to Ranis' probe into 19th century terms such as "black tourism" and "slumming," developed by British aristocrats in the colonial era. "In this film, I'm not trying to show it from the position of somebody who feels somehow better than those people. What's more important is that we foreigners think we are researchers and have some understanding. But in the end, we're still tourists and observers, sometimes even intruders."

At the climax of the video, Ranis enthusiastically shares his quick exchange with a local. "An Indian gentleman on the street starts filming me with his cell phone and he's reversing the position. That's something that is important for me, that this balance is changing."

White Supremacy — The End

Free admission. Exhibit continues through May 5. Gallery hours: Tuesday-Saturday, 10:30 a.m.-6:30 p.m.; Sunday, 12 p.m.-5 p.m. New Gallery of Modern Art, 435 S. Tryon St. 704-373-1464.

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