Peter Dubé
No. 108 – fall 2014

Metaphorical Spaces : An Interview with James Nizam

James Nizam is a Vancouver-based artist whose work interrogates the lines between, and connecting, sculpture, architecture, photography and the performative. Nizam holds a BFA from the University of British Columbia and was longlisted for the Sobey Art Award in 2011.


Peter Dubé : One striking feature of your work is the way it interrogates the idea of the sculptural (or architectural) in both conceptual and formal terms. So, given the theme of this issue – “re-thinking sculpture” – I’d like to begin by inviting you to discuss the relationship of your images to the sculptural. 

James Nizam : Photography has played a vital role in capturing the sculptural image within my work and I see this as part of the evolving narrative of sculpture as it has been altered by photography. In the late 1960s a radical aesthetic change shifted both the definition of the sculptural object, and the ways in which that object was experienced. This change had to do with the role of photography in the reception of sculptural practices that were engaged in what Rosalind Krauss called an “expanded field” of operation. A number of artists who did not consider themselves photographers in the traditional sense began using the camera to rework the idea of what sculpture had been. Dispensing with the immobile, gallery-bound object, they turned instead to an altered site: the built environment, the remote landscape, or the studio or museum space in which the artist intervened. This engagement with site and architecture meant that sculpture no longer had to be a permanent three-dimensional object. As with my work it could be a configuration of architectural furnishings on an apartment floor, a shadow cast from an object placed in the desert, a shard of light cut through a suburban home, or star trails sequenced into Morse code; interventions that in each case were visually mediated by photographs positing a relationship between sculpture and its representation.


It’s interesting that you refer to Rosalind Krauss in your response. How important is reading, or an awareness of, critical theory in your practice? (And in what ways is it important?)

I feel that it’s good to be aware of all theoretical references, both historical and contemporary that surround one’s practice. This helps to inform a broader sense of a framework around “things”. But theory is not the guiding force for understanding what I’m doing or where my ideas or interests come from. I think ideas ask questions, and I see critical reflection as more important to, and inseparable from, the process that is making art.


In past interviews you’ve commented on the rapport that exists between space and memory, how has your thinking around this question developed? 

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, and within my neighborhood I witnessed blocks of single-family homes vacated and demolished to make way for condominiums. It was like looking out of my window and seeing ruins suddenly emerge across the street. I was so compelled by these sights, my natural reaction was to engage with them. I adopted these vacant structures as free spaces to create works much like a ‘provisional’ studio of sorts. In the lapse of the functional attributes of a building – when it is vacated, condemned, stripped of its materials, and left as a shell of its former self – I discovered a space of possibility. This particular space of possibility is what 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. In this sense 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 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.


“Connecting a set of conceptual pivot points” and the “space of metaphor” are both interesting phrases. Metaphors are, after all, about combination and transformation, and your images transform ordinary perceptual events in powerful ways. Lets consider Shard of Light, recently shown at Dazibao here in Montreal, for example. In that work light appears to take on volume, even substance without lessening the impression of material space. So, if as Quintilian suggests, metaphors “add to the resources of language by exchanges or borrowings to supply its deficiencies […] and ensure(s) that nothing goes without a name,” what do you hope your images “name” and what do you hope for from such naming?

The lines of relation that metaphor establishes between my images and their inherent concepts are essential to the creation of meaning in the work. Hopefully these connections bring to light a multi-layered fabric of content, context, and connotation that has the full echo effect of naming a poetic space. I’ve been thinking about this more and more as a strategy for making work out of other works by transforming and transferring meaning from one work to another through a braided logic of sorts. Thinking about Shard of Light for example, I turned the vessel of a house into a photographic apparatus through a cut, which focused sunlight into a sculptural form. The resulting image of a light “sculpture” captures a moment of time similar to a photographic trace, similar to a sundial in reverse. In a later work, I toured the fragment that I cut away from the house, in effect mobilizing a ruin, from Vancouver to Death Valley. There I staged the house fragment on the playa, and photographed a sequence of shadows cast as the sun set over the fragment.   This photo-work, which I called Sundial, depicts an image of the days end set against the geological timescape of a desert. Recently, at an exhibition at the Yukon Arts Centre, I presented the photographs Sundial AND Shard of Light together with Umbra, the house fragment, as a sculptural object. Umbra is painted in a zero reflective black finish, and floated on the exhibition floor like an incarnate shadow of the two photo works which hung on an adjacent wall. In a triangulated manner, this configuration names the divide between each work through interconnected forays that borrow meaning from all sides as all three works talk to one another.


Though your work is often site-specific, it also tends to resist some of the intellectual and sentimental ambiance that inhabits particular sites; the romanticism that might attend abandoned buildings for example. How do you work against that tendency?

I don’t want to be nostalgic or lament a tragic sense of loss that attends the romanticism of abandoned buildings. I’m more interested to ruminate on the potential of these sites, where they flash up in a moment of erasure. As Walter Benjamin suggests, “ it isn’t that the past casts its light on what is present or that what is present cast its light on what is past; rather, an image is that in which the Then and the Now come together into a constellation like a flash of lighting.”


The tensions in your quotation from Benjamin paradoxically remind me of another tension that seems to animate your work: that between the documentary photo and the staged or “studio” image. Given how your photographs do document another “prior,” often sculptural or architectural work deliberately staged for the photographic product, and that these works are often quite striking in their staging, do you feel that the implied pressures add to the work’s effectiveness? And how? 

Again thinking about my Dwellings series, the tension between the documentary and the staged highlighted the ambiguity between found and constructed elements in my images and put into question the capacity of the image to alter the veracity of what is real and what is imagined.   With more recent work the relationship between the documentary photo and the staged is less about disrupting the reality of the image so much as it is about transposing the qualities of the animate on the inanimate world.


Finally, lets end with a consideration of things to come. In what directions do you see your work heading in the near future? (This is, of course, the inevitable question about new projects.)

This summer I’ve been invited to present a site-specific work at KIT in Dusseldorf, Germany. The exhibition brings together several artists that share a common interest in the nature of photography, who, rather than placing emphasis on the end result, or image, generate meaning elsewhere within the photographic act. I am also currently working on my first public art piece, a light installation, that will address the rooftops of two building towers in Toronto. The installation explores the exchange of light between the towers at certain times throughout year in an attempt to connect a horological event to the construction of memory and the place where people live.


James Nizam, Sundial, 2013. Photo credit: Birch Contemporary. Courtesy of the artist.
James Nizam, Two Triangles, 2013. Courtesy of the artist.
James Nizam, Umbra, 2013. Courtesy of the artist.
James Nizam, Thought Form (Cube), 2011. Photo credit: Birch Contemporary. Courtesy of the artist.
James Nizam, Thought Form (Fan), 2011. Photo credit: Birch Contemporary. Courtesy of the artist.
James Nizam, Drill Holes Through Studio Wall, 2012. Photo credit: Birch Contemporary. Courtesy of the artist.
James Nizam, Wrought Iron Railing in Light Reflective Material, 2013. Photo credit: Birch Contemporary. Courtesy of the artist.
James Nizam, Shard of Light, 2011. Photo credit: Birch Contemporary. Courtesy of the artist.
James Nizam, Installation View, Yukon Arts Centre, 2013. Courtesy of the artist.