Saturday, November 01, 2008

James Nizam: Tumulus

Picking up a last cup of coffee, I boarded the 8:30 a.m. bus at gate No. 36 of New York City's Port Authority Bus Terminal headed West.  I relaxed into a window seat and let the cool flow of the air conditioner dry the sweat that had already started to dampen my shirt.  As we rumbled out of the cavernous underground parking complex, I caught a glimpse of New Jersey through a hot and hazy summer morning before descending into the Lincoln Tunnel.

On the other side, I watched as the bus passed by but not through first Passaic, then by but not through Clifton, and finally by but not through Rutherford.  While moving onward I was moving inadvertently backward through the life of Robert Smithson which left me curiously stationary, suspended.  I'd been planning a trip to Passaic to visit the monuments since first reading about them, a kind of Grand Tour of that other Eternal City, but had never gotten around to it.  They're mostly gone now - eternity doesn't last as long anymore.

Ever the dialectician, Robert Smithson said, We are lost between the abyss within us and the boundless horizons outside us, and as I look at the Tumulus photographs of James Nizam and Roger Eberhard I am reminded of how closely they are following his example.  But it's at a comfortable distance and the companionship is welcome.  It's a warm reminder, like finding a lost love.  Certain precursors are unavoidable consorts in experiencing and producing works of art.  I imagine them climbing fences side by side and walking their landscapes together - taking their photographs and talking about the inevitable crumbling of use to disuse, or the equally inevitable rising into ruins.  Beginning in antiquity, the list of artists who have recognized the appeal of ruins is a distinguished one and makes them part of a well established aesthetic.  In the Twentieth century the field was expanded to include the wreckage of industry.  Henry Miller is one of the literary fathers of the aesthetic - "Why do I talk ruins and destruction?  Because there is fascination in them.  Because, if one is sensitive and nostalgic, they make poems" - but it's J.G Ballard, inspirer of Smithson, who is it's greatest proponent - "I believe in my own obsessions, in the beauty of the car crash, in the peace of the submerged forest, in the excitements of the deserted holiday beach, in the elegance of automobile graveyards, in the mystery of multi-storey car parks, in the poetry of abandoned hotels."  Besides the melancholy pleasure they give in themselves, ruins evoke a presence vanished, but also one beyond them.  They offer the opportunity for the operation of the imagination to restore them - every ruin is another opportunity.  It's not so much the work that links all these artists as it is their shared position as poets of wreckage.  As ruins, Nizam and Eberhard's tumuli are as close as it gets in Vancouver these days.  Standing in front of these large prints I am drawn in and enveloped by their lush greenness.  I can almost feel the cool dampness of a British Columbian forest.  

On a cold morning Nizam and I turned off Route 7B and continued driving East on a single lane.  We'd left the main highway some time before and the city had soon dropped away, replaced by lowlands that were planted with blueberries on both sides through which we now traveled.  The fan of the heater whirred and the voice of Khaals, the Great Transformer, told the story of the great chiefs Oe'lecten and Swaneset and how they'd made this region abundant.  Without realizing it we'd crossed over onto their traditional territory, the territory that had been granted by the Creator to their descendants - the Katzie people.  That was long in the past, but in 1846 when the British asserted sovereignty, the Katzie reasserted their own and continue to do so.  Arriving at the shore of Pitt Lake we met a one-legged fisherman who pointed out the direction where we could find the boatman to ferry us across the short expanse of Grant Narrows to our destination. 

Stepping out of the small boat on the other side we left our footprints next to countless others in the emerald green and rust colored moss that shrouded the bank of Siwash Island like the mist that was coming off the lake.  In the mid-1970s, the Katzie had leased their lands here at the mouth of the Pitt River to a developer who dreamed of creating a lakeside holiday resort.  Sixty-six small lots were created.  A-frame cabins brought in.  A restaurant was built.  When that dream vanished the Katzie offered the plots individually.  Many of the new "owners" expanded the cabins, adding decks and gardens, rooms and water collection systems.  Some had spent over two decades of weekends and vacations there with their families.  For some it was a place to retire.  Recently those leases had ended and the Katzie decided not to renew them, deciding instead to reabsorb the land into the band and give it a new use.  In the wake of this decision the owners were given the choice of removing the cabins and their contents or having them removed by the Katzie.  Some chose to burn their cabins in anger, some were abandoned.  The others had been knocked down and left in heaps.  These are what we'd come to see.  In imagination they were the original home, the archetypal hut of Adam in Paradise and of the hermit, and the little house in the woods of fairy tales and mythology distantly reflected in the suburban idyll of a cottage by a lake, and reduced to ruins.  In such abandoned sites normal rules no longer seem to apply, and there is a certain sense of abandon, a wanton freedom. 

As one surveys the horizon of human culture and the history of art, mounds are everywhere.  They are our ubiquitous markers.  In them we recognize an expression of the fundamental human urges to form, to organize and categorize, to move from the horizontal to verticality.  They are the child's sand castle.  They are the Tower of Babel.  They are the pyramids of Djoser and Khufu, the Stupa and the mounds in the regions of the Great Lakes and the Ohio and Mississippi rivers - strung together like beads.  Each mound takes its own characteristic shape dependent upon its materials, their quantities and distribution, while at the same time conforming to its general type so to be both random and determined.  Sand for instance, holds an angle of incline different than pennies, as in Gerald Ferguson's One Million Pennies, or the lettuce in Jeff Wall's Bad Goods, or letters in Robert Smithson's A Heap of Language.  At that point the material finds its unique angle of stability. 

In many respects mounds are an ideal symbol for simultaneity.  Simultaneously horizontal and vertical, they are simultaneously monuments to death and renewed life, loss and transformation - the one forever lurking in the other.  Because I always see the future, said Gustave Flaubert, the antithesis of everything is always before my eyes.  I have never seen a child without thinking that it would grow old, not a cradle without thinking of the grave.  Flaubert's transition from cradle to grave seems instantaneous, but looking at the mounds I also see the jerky stop action films of lava engulfing a town and army ants devouring a frog.  They are that inevitable march.  Of deterioration, but also of becoming.  A rising and falling like waves.

Before us the mounds were in the process of simultaneously deteriorating and becoming.  The materials were already beginning to rot and compress.  Soil would blow and eventually sift into the cracks, smoothing out the contours.  Moss and ferns would take root as would blackberry and alder, cedar and fir.  The mounds would be slowly swallowed by the forest and disappear.  You could already see that starting to happen with some.  In these moist forests, as in the boundlessness called time, nothing will last.  All will eventually be swamped and disappear under successive mounds of debris.  For now we're on top, but some day we'll find ourselves six feet under, then a mile.  All of our accomplishments will be compressed by time and pressure into an anomalous stratum as unusual and characteristic as the K/T boundary.  Quarries of the future will excavate slabs of concrete, blocks of asphalt.  This is the future for future builders.

Looking back at the photographs of Tumulus, their squat rectangles reinforce the pull of horizontal and vertical - an almost equal balance of forces.  We see the residue of our dreams and aspirations - to verticality, to conquest, to grandeur, to a way back home, to a cottage on a lake.  We also see the possibilities inherent in them - where disuse falls into pools of opportunity.  It's not a nostalgic lament for the past that they evoke, but also not a utopian yearning for the future.  It's a clear gazing at the present.  But one that incorporates both the depths of geologic time, and the future extinction of life as the rundown of energy is finally complete and entropy turns our sandbox a uniform gray.