Sarah Davidson: You had mentioned that working on location (outside of a studio), poses some interesting dilemmas. Can you briefly explain what your process looks like?
James Nizam: The process of my work has been heavily influenced by the fact that I’ve often staged projects in buildings slated for demolition. This gives rise to some interesting dilemmas. On the one hand, I’m always working against time; I’m chasing the wrecking ball so to speak. My window of opportunity to realize a work is always at the mercy of a developer’s schedule. The process of my work is always imbued with a sense of urgency. Things happen quickly, and it is precisely in these flashes of exigency and contingency – where a work unhinges itself from the site – that I really feel “in the moment” when realizing my works. On the other hand, soliciting a site oftentimes means that I have to rely on a chain of approval before I can get started. This can be frustrating for me because it puts me in delay with the act of making something. Lately I have been thinking about how to bring my ideas into a studio practice so I am at arms reach throughout the process.
SD: Are some of the conceptual pitfalls of making art inside houses (here or anywhere)?
JN: I feel that the idea of repurposing a house has at best become a trope, a cliché at worst. I’m thinking here, for example, about the ubiquitous ruin porn, which sometimes moves within the territory of this cliché of abandonment. I have always been careful to prevent my work from becoming parasitic upon the spaces from which it departs – especially abandoned domestic spaces, which were my primary focus a few years ago. By “parasitic” I mean the danger of my work taking its meaning solely from the space of the house. They are places ripe with meanings and possibilities, and this is precisely their conceptual pitfall. But I would like my work to create meaning in its own right – to open a perspective – rather than to rely on the very present and undoubtedly compelling aesthetics of abandonment. Part of that, of course, is paying respect to that which is oblique. I aim to resist the temptation to make anything concrete and present, but rather to engage with the house conceptually so as to make it reveal absences and voids. The main challenge, as I see it, is not to attempt to force narrative closure upon a space, but to open a field of possibility, artistic and otherwise.
SD: Can you talk a little about how ideas around space have evolved in your work?
JN: With my earlier work my ideas around space focused on local domestic architectures. When I shot my Dwellings series in 2005, Vancouver was in the midst of a massive urban makeover. In 2003 the city won the bid for the Olympics and in the wake of this Vancouver became the subject of a development boom. I lived on Oak Street at this time; within my neighborhood I witnessed blocks of houses demolished to make way for new real estates. It was like looking out of my window and seeing ruins suddenly emerge across the street. And as I was so compelled by these sights, my natural reaction was to engage them. I adopted these homeless structures as a free space to create works in much like a ‘provisional’ studio of sorts. In the lapse where the functional attributes of a building are removed – when it is vacated, condemned, stripped of its materials, and left as a shell of its former demands – I discovered a space of possibility. This particular space of possibility, a Spielraum if you will, is that which opens up once a house turns into a ruin.
It allowed me to reflect on the extent to which spaces continue to hold and perhaps to efface memory by turning into artifacts of lived experience, after they’ve been abandoned and stripped of their prior function. So obviously my point of departure in thinking about space conceptually was something immediate, personal and material. However, once I began to develop these ideas further, and to expand on the concept of the photograph as an artifact in its own right, I moved into more abstract territory in my reflection on space. A spatial structure, which may or may not be demolished by the time the viewer engages with it through my work, and the photograph are both traces that speak for each other metaphorically. They’re both characterized by voids and lapses. And such voids and lapses – signified by light and the photographic apparatus as which rooms come to act in my current work – appeared to me to say more of the ephemeral characteristics of something that is, after all, not set in stone: namely space as a container of memory. So in a sense, I’ve moved from the domain of the concrete into the space of metaphor, of connecting a set of conceptual pivot points.
SD: While your work has consistently relied on local domestic architecture, you seem to have moved away from this towards more abstract geometric forms, and a broader focus on the intersection of optics, architecture, and photography. How is this manifesting in your work right now?
JN: When window boardings are placed over an abandoned structure its fate is sealed and it becomes entombed. It becomes like an object of death, a negative space, or a dark room. It’s hard not to see a parallel to photography in this sense. Perforations that puncture through the structure let light inside in a way that becomes image-forming. Lately I have been thinking about architecture as an optical device or photographic apparatus. I’ve been thinking about the spaces I’ve been working in as ready-made containers to channel light. I feel an empty room is like the inside of camera, which, in turn, is like the inside of film canister. By extension, bringing light into a darkroom is like bringing light into a camera or light into the skull and the vitreous chamber of the eye. I have used these overlapping worlds as pivot points to explore one space as an extension of the other. My recent photo works are an expression of the poetic similitude that exists along two axes of metaphor, photographic apparatuses/architecture / eye and architecture/mind/ cosmos.
SD: What does the conversation between your earlier works and your current projects look like?
JN: It’s a conversation that works both ways. Of course, there are certain ideas and concepts that I started developing in my earlier works, which still inform my current artistic practice. But that’s only one aspect, because there is no linearity to such a conversation. I always arrive at my work retrospectively. In the moment of creation, you may not realize what it is you’re doing exactly, but it’s when you look back that things start to untether themselves. Your body of work, as it develops, offers you an ever-growing and ever-shifting set of coordinates, referencing ideas, meanings, spaces and points in time. And those coordinates, at some point, appear as a form in themselves, as a constellation. You build your own cosmos. And it’s only in looking at this cosmos as a whole that you are really able to reflect on its origins, where it all came from.
James Nizam (b. 1977) is a
Canadian artist currently based in Vancouver. His art practice
investigates the workings of memory by exploring the relationship between
photography and architecture and their capacity (alone and in conjunction) to
comment on the vagaries of the mnemonic artefact. Nizam’s work
has been exhibited extensively in Canada and abroad with upcoming exhibitions at Birch Libralato Toronto, Christophe Guye Zurich, and the Yukon Arts Centre, and Dazibao, Montreal. A recent recipient of a research and creation
grant from the Canada Council for the Arts, Nizam’s work has also been
recognized and reviewed in publications such as Canadian Art, Flash Art, Border
Crossings, The British Journal of Photography, and Kalimat Magazine.
In 2011, he was long listed for the Sobey Art Award, Canada’s preeminent
award for Canadian Contemporary Art. Recent art commissions
include the Louis Vuitton Maison, Scotia Bank Contact Photography
Festival and an upcoming public art project for Concord Pacific in