James Nizam

James Nizam Interview - By Steven Cox

HUNTED PROJECTS discovered the interventionist works of James Nizam a few months back, since then, through several online discussions, a fascinating dialogue developed that explored Nizam's dedication of generating some startlingly beautiful works which involved the manipulation of light and re-sculpting of found buildings.  Below, Nizam explains the background behind some of his most ambition projects, such as Shard of Light which involved himself physically removing a slice from the facade of an abandoned house that cost him only $1, Trace Heavens and The Tumulus series Nizam developed in collaboration with photographer Roger Eberhard.


Can you tell HUNTED PROJECTS about yourself and creative background?

JN: I was born in Bedford, England and grew up living mostly throughout the Middle East.  I studied at the University of British Columbia and have spent the majority of my art practice working out of Vancouver.  I’m currently now based in Berlin.

When did your interest within the arts begin?

JN: As far back as I can remember I’ve always had a black book to draw in or to write down my ideas and thoughts.  I think mid-way through art school I started to develop a better understanding of “the arts” and my place in it.  Things naturally progressed from there.

The Tumulus series you developed in collaboration with photographer Roger Eberhard explores summer cabins destroyed by their owners in the wake of a land dispute on the Katzie reserve in Pitt Lake, British Columbia.  Can you discuss how this project and collaboration with Roger Eberhard came to fruition?

JN: I’ve spent a lot of summers at Pitt Lake.  My friend has a cabin there and it was through his family that Roger and I were introduced to the story of the abandoned cabins on the Katzie Indian Reserve.  In the 70’s a developer planned to create a resort on the Katzie band’s lakeside property.  About 60 un-serviced lots were created before the deal went sour a decade later.  The Katzie, through the Department of Indian and Northern affairs, began leasing the sites out individually.  But in 2000, the band voted to end the leases determining that the land was better suited for its resource and its tourist potential. It was their land right to do so but in the wake of this decision the cabin owners had to leave their homes.   Many of the owners destroyed their cabins.  Some burned them down.  Others simply walked away.   In 2008, when Roger and I toured the site for the first time, many of the cabin structures had fallen into large mounds of debris that were slowly being consumed by the forest.  It was hard not to imagine these formations as Tumuli, an archaeological term describing ancient burial mounds.  Pitt Lake is rich in a history of ancient burial sites but the difficulty in appreciating these histories, or knowledge thereof, is visibility. Unlike the monumental landmarks typical of those found in Rome, many of the ancient landmarks at Pitt Lake are buried in the sediment of the land and carried on through story only. Roger and I were interested in this cycle of ruin, grave, and forest, and the idea of the pile mounds as markers of another layer of invisible history in the landscape.

Your interest with architecture and light is apparent throughout your work, Trace Heavens is a fascinating body of work where you created temporal sculptures, Thought forms: Cube, Fold, Tetrahedron, Fan and Dart.  Can you discuss the process of how you managed to control the beams of light to generate these forms?

JN: The Trace Heavens work came about through an interest I’ve had with ancient solar architectures like those found at the Newgrange, Knowth, and Dowth passage mounds in the Boyne Valley in Ireland.  I wanted to approximate something similar to the idea of a solar alignment employed in the design of these astronomical observatories and was inspired to perform a series of architectural slicing’s and piercings made channel and record sunlight.   The Thought Forms were staged in an empty room in my Vancouver apartment and are created via multiple exposures, which build their pseudo-holographic forms in stages over time in camera.  They are difficult to create: the sun’s rays can only be deflected so many times by the mirrors before they dissipate, therefore to complete a single form I had to construct them in sections.  The forms are constantly slipping away as the orientation of the sun to the room changes. Although I thumb nailed hundreds of forms in advance of starting the project, I chose a few that best pushed the visual illusion of simultaneously receding, projecting and remaining flat in space.  The challenge was building these illusions in isometric projection and fitting them into anamorphic perspective from the point of view of the camera.

Shard of Light is an impressive example of one of your architectural interventions where you created a structural incision upon a building prior to its demolition.  Could you discuss this work for HUNTED PROJECTS?

JN: Again, I was thinking about this idea of creating a light form from a solar alignment using the sun and a readymade structure.  I found a house on the riverfront in an industrial area just outside of Vancouver that was selling for $1 dollar....  the only catch being that if I purchased it I had to relocate the entire building.  I pitched a very loose proposal to the city soliciting the use of the space to realize a monument of sorts in advent that the house would be demolished if no one came through on the property.  It took almost a year to get the go ahead on the project and in the months leading up to accessing the space I spent a lot of time just observing the sun --understanding how light would fall into the structure at different times of day and anticipating the waning light over the course of the summer months when the project would be realized.   From these observations I was able to determine how the form would take shape.  There was only one room in the house that allowed for a perfect shot -- in the sense that it was the only room big enough to stage a full room in the camera frame.  Exacting the cut hinged on the fixed position of the camera within this room and the orientation of this room in relation to the position of the sun at midday.  There was some structural reinforcement that I had to build to ensure the roof wouldn't collapse before I removed a one-foot wide section of the house from floor to ceiling through to the roof.  I built this wider cut back in to a one-inch beveled slit, which allowed me to focus the sun into a perfectly sharp shard of light. 

The importance of documenting your interventions is pivotal, for your sculptural works have a short life span as they are created within rural spaces destined for demolition.  How do you discover the structures and spaces that become central to each project?

JN: I’m always looking for new sites to realize projects in.  Sometimes this can be a bit of a frustration for me.  As my ideas for projects get bigger the process of soliciting use of new spaces gets harder and takes more time.  Convincing a developer that you want to cut apart a building raises red flags pretty quickly.  I think that’s why with past works there was an urgency that I really enjoyed.  With the Dwellings and the Anteroom Series I never asked for permission to use the spaces that I shot in.  I just broke in and worked fast to execute a creative trespass of sorts.  In this regards, photography served a fairly straightforward purpose of documenting a performative element in my work.   And consistent with all my work is this idea of staging things in buildings slated for demolition -- the work is destroyed in the building wreck save for the photographic record.  The work comes out of an architectural ruin and makes me think that a ruin, or a fragment, or a photograph, are one in the same thing.

Where do you position yourself as either a sculptor or photographer?

JN: My approach often takes on an increased physicality, as with Shard of Light, wherein the aperture becomes a structural cut.  The room, used to create Shard of Light, as with the room used for Thought Forms, or as with any of the rooms used for the Anteroom works, retains some connection with the structure of a camera or that of a workshop or a sculpture studio.  Within this workshop, the experimental and pseudo-scientific nature of my jury-rigged setups, repurpose the box/ aperture in a manner that opens these concerns up beyond the purview of photography.  Less and less does the perforation of the room function as an aperture in a photographic sense of recording the outside world than it does to the production of visual effects that verge on the sculptural and palpable. 

Are you working on any new projects at the moment?

JN: I’m working on a Trace Heavens catalogue as well as continuing to explore different ideas with light, architecture and photographic emulsions.  I have a solo project at the Toronto Art Fair in October as well as the Singapore Art Fair in November.  I’m currently working on a commission of new Anteroom works for Louis Vuitton. 

You have recently moved to Berlin, what is it that made you jump ship from Vancouver to Berlin and what are your thoughts on Berlin so far?

JN: The timing seemed right for me.  I just launched Trace Heavens and feel I have room to move and explore other things free of that pressure to produce new work.   I’ve also been back and forth to Berlin now several times building on some momentum with the Tumulus project so it just seemed to make sense.  So far, so good.  I’m settled into a workspace and I’m starting to meet some amazing people.

Can you tell us about some of your influences that have had an impact on your practice over the years?

JN: There have been a lot of different influences that have impacted my practice over the years…. I would say James Turrell has been on my mind quite a bit lately. I also get excited when I see other artists that I know and respect pushing hard with their work.  That synergy gets me excited to make more art.

James Nizam