Earlier last month, artist Marek Ranis installed eleven paintings and two vinyl floor coverings in the lobby of the Carillon building downtown. Marek removed the art a few days later on request from Shorenstein Realty Services, owners of the Carillon. Shorenstein made the decision following complaints from some of their tenants.Repugnance is in the eye of the beholder. No one's ranting here, no one's screaming anti-war slogans or burning flags. These paintings were whispers of a high tech war waged from a distance. High tech weapons make this depiction of war removed, sterile, clinical. Still, during its short stint at the Carillon, feelings ran high about the art.
On one wall displaying the work, the artist offered a description of the work: War.
The paintings were created in "battlepiece" painting tradition. They're realistic representations of stills taken from the Department of Defense film archives documenting the bombings of Afghanistan in 2000/2001. One can imagine the war in Iraq will look the same.
The paintings imitate low quality digital images shot by cameras installed on military aircraft. Most of the footage of laser-guided bombing shows military targets: bunkers, caves, military convoys. The targets are shown just before or just after the explosion. The number by each painting is the file number from the archives of the Defense Department.
The eleven paintings depict targeting stills from bombing aircraft and the two floor pieces depict the city of Kabul and the territorial boundaries of Iraq -- former and future targets.
Why did some object to the paintings? Too graphic? Hardly. Images in Newsweek make these paintings look like foggy impressionist paintings. When I asked the artist that question, he hesitated and appeared a little guarded, like his words and ideas might be taken the wrong way, or perhaps maybe spoken the wrong way. "I don't like to say why people react like they do, I can't read their minds..."
I ask him to humor me. Speculate on possible reasons.
He faintly scowled and said, "I don't think people are given enough credit for their own imaginations. These images are not explicit, the images do not provide the horror, the imagination of the seer provides the horror."
He's right. The paintings are not provocative. The images are so removed from our familiar Hollywood images of war it takes a serious stretch of imagination to be repulsed. The war is over there, we attack from over here. Missiles are lobbed in, bombs are dropped from way up there. We see everything up to and including the explosion. The effects of the explosions are left to our imaginations.
"The tragedy is in the mind," says Ranis. "It's not my own projections and fears -- it's yours." He paraphrases a remembered quote (after first preemptively apologizing for any misquote) he remembers from Alfred Hitchcock -- the filmmaker was commenting on his methods for evoking terror. "It's not about the murder, it's about the scream in the dark."
The piece that was in the middle of the floor looked like a giant vinyl carpet. It was a satellite image of Kabul, Afghanistan. As I walked across the carpet and looked down from 10 miles high, the city looked like Tucson, Arizona. It was orderly and precise and resembled one more poster child for sprawl. Clustered homes and patterned fields were traversed by roads. There were soccer stadiums, an airport, warehouses. It appeared both vast and crowded, a benign matrix of compressed humanity.
This city appeared nothing like the Afghanistan I remember from the military reports and nightly news, which conjured an image of a rocky wasteland of mountainous terrain pocked by cave openings. My image was both prehistoric and postmodern -- bearded nomads with cell phones hunkered in damp caves capped with satellite dishes. This 19' x 16' view beneath my feet was a planned urban explosion, more Charlotte than Timbuktu, more Ozzie and Harriet than Osama bin Laden.
From a distance, that is.
The comment board from the lobby of the Carillon is as interesting and perhaps more illuminating than the artwork, which is no longer in the building (after its removal, it was briefly housed in the College of Architecture Gallery in the Storrs Building at UNC-Charlotte, but the exhibit comes down today). I consider these comments as part of the artwork, as articulations spurred by Ranis' benignly provocative kick start -- the finishing touches.
Here's a small sampling of opinion:
"The art on display in the lobby is thought-provoking. It leads me to thoughts of gloom... When something is offensive to the majority, then remove it."
"It is rare that your exhibit is so timely and thought-provoking. I am disappointed that you are removing it. I guess we can look forward to some portraits of bunnies and puppies, hey?"
"I say "FRY them all.' And take a picture to hang on your wall."
"Charlotte a world class city? The censoring of free speech... and the knee-jerk decision to avoid community discussion by dismantling this exhibition proves that we are not yet ready for prime time."
"Get a real job."
"I think it's a shame you're taking (the art) down. It is the most timely and thought-provoking exhibit ever displayed here, and yet tastefully done. If you can't take the heat I would suggest you contact the Holiday Inn. I am sure they have some "art' we could all enjoy."
Ain't America great?