Friday, January 01, 2010

Memorandoms: An Assemblage of Nouns

Stabile of Drawers

On the occasion of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, James Nizam presents Memorandoms that continues his use of vacated domestic interiors as the backbone of his photography, the provisional location of his studio, and the source of materials.  In this case the site is the former Little Mountain housing project, which occupied 33rd to 37th Avenues, between Ontario and Main Streets, the oldest public housing development in Vancouver until it was recently demolished.  This wasn't ill conceived Modernist utopian social housing like the complex in the South Bronx in which the windows were broken out by angry residents, memorialized by Gordon Matta-Clark in Window Blow-Out, 1976.  No, the problem at Little Mountain wasn't tenants angry at having to live there, they were angry at having to leave.  Designed by Vancouver architects Sharp and Thompson, Berwick, Pratt between 1953 and 1954, these low rise buildings across the street from Queen Elizabeth Park would have been attractive housing at one time.  Large windows threw light onto hardwood floors of square, well built rooms.  But that was decades ago.  At roughly the same time as the finishing touches were being put on the Olympic athletes village around False Creek, the last of the tenants holding onto their apartments at Little Mountain were moved out to make way for the development of a higher density combination of market condominiums and social housing.  The wrecking balls, steam shovels, bulldozers, and dump trucks moved in, creating tumuli of stucco and lumber.  Shortly thereafter, even these were gone, leaving a flat, level field.  A nasty rumor has it that it's just in time to be made into a temporary parking lot to service the Olympic curling that will take place at a rink nearby.     

One year ago, when only a handful of tenants remained in the sprawling complex, Nizam walked up the stairs into the shabby rooms of one of the dilapidated third floor apartments at 5195 James Walk.  With the management's sanction, he set up a 4 x 5 camera in one corner and turned its living room into his studio for three months.  Slowly roaming the sprawling complex, he sifted through what had been left behind and imagined the lives that had collected there.  Scattered around the abandoned mattresses and graffiti were random assemblages of the forgotten and unwanted possessions of the former tenants that had personalized their identical apartments and transformed them into individual homes.  Standing in the midst of these unintentional temporary monuments, Nizam decided to concentrate on assemblages of the standardized, impersonal units found before the shirts and underwear, the kitchen utensils, and the individual dreams and secrets of the inhabitants are brought in, and the ones left over after they have been taken out.  He began to gather together the common objects that held them (drawers and shelves), lit them (bulbs and light fixtures), cooked them (stove elements), cleaned them (copper pipe), supported them (chairs), enclosed and protected them (doors).    

Similar to each of Nizam's five previous series of photographs, Memorandoms has two dominant themes: the lost or abandoned domicile, and that the personal is political.  Without exception, his work has as its starting point the loss or giving up of home, and if not the structure itself, then at least its idea.  As an architectural metaphor for the body, the loss of home is the disenfranchisement of the spirit.  The empty home is a dead body.  Into this precondition of loss, Nizam's work introduces the idea that through the performance of certain transformative, memorializing gestures, whether of violence or of beauty, like the construction of sculpture or the taking of photographs, loss can be given some purpose and meaning.  That the body can be reanimated by the spirit.  Even if only temporarily.  Because at best, a temporariness of place is all a home can offer either the inhabitant or the artist.  It is all a monument or memorial can offer.  Lasting years maybe, or only moments, they all follow in the same inevitable direction that ends in tumuli of memory and materials.  That is the modern experience.  It's tempting to see a reflection of Nizam's experience of leaving so many homes while growing up, and his acknowledgment of the contemporary Middle East experience of eviction from home in his use of abandoned domiciles.  Nizam's father is Lebanese.  On a recent trip to Beirut, Nizam met many of the close relatives he still has living in Lebanon, and visited the family home he'd never seen.  Soon after Nizam's birth in Bedfordshire, England, the family got stationed in the Borneo jungle in Brunei for two years.  They then lived in Muscat, Oman for ten years, moved back to Bedfordshire for two, and finally immigrated to Canada.   
Even if it is not clearly discerned in the sculptures and photographs of Memorandoms, the context in which they are made and photographed is crucially important to him.  This is something that is internal to him, whether or not it is internal to what we see in the work.  We don't see the strife created by the eviction of the former tenants in the photographs, just like we don't see the cockroaches and bedbugs that infested their apartments.  Might we somehow intuit something larger going on?  Or that something larger than what is in the frame is going on?  How would we recognize it?  There are markers.  The number and identical type of objects that Nizam has collected and assembled are subtle indicators that he is working in mass or social housing.  A context where the apartments, like the materials themselves, are multiple and identical.  The unswept floor is another marker that something outside the sculpture and the photograph is important.  The objects Nizam has collected have been made aesthetic by being assembled into sculptures, and the sculptures have been further aestheticized by being crisply photographed with a large format camera.  Yet the aesthetics of neither have been thought of exclusively enough to make Nizam want to simply sweep the floor and remove the dirt and debris from the picture.  Like the veiled, distorted skull in a memento mori, the unswept floor functions as a reminder of unseen forces beyond the frame, and the aesthetic.  These unseen forces are political.  And because the political forces affect the personal conditions of how and why one loses one's home, this is the entrance of the political into the personal.  

The contest for importance between what is inside and outside of the frame is an even match-up that gives Memorandoms an insistent tension.  It's like a glancing jab on the chin.  The same taut balance and tension exists between whether Nizam is a photographer who makes sculpture or a sculptor who takes photographs.  If he is a photographer, why the increasing frequency and importance of sculpture in his work?  In Memorandoms they have grown to such prominence that they are all we see.  They start to crowd the edges of the frame and stand their ground so firmly that getting past them to the background is almost impossible.  The sculptures were made one after another in the same corner of the room and photographed there, the camera never moving from its spot.  Why the static camera position?  When there is so much shown about the principles of sculpture, how much is shown about photography using the one camera position, the one lighting source, and cropping the image so closely that almost everything but the sculpture is squeezed out?  In this severely restricted use of the medium there is the familiar ring of singularity similar to the principles of Ad Reinhardt and Dogma cinema.  To determine the dimensions of the photographs, Nizam used a proportionately relative scale to the sculptures they pictured.  The photograph Pillar of Shelves, for instance, is proportionately larger than the photograph Sheaf of Pipe in the same relation as the sculpture of the pillar of shelves was larger than the sculpture of the sheaf of pipe, and also, without losing too much consistency of presentation, approximating the actual sizes of the sculptures themselves.  A sculptural physicality even runs to the titles of the photographs in their assemblages of nouns: "pillar", "stabile", "cascade", "entanglement", "pile", "tower", "helix", "sheaf", "crescendo", "lattice", "cluster"; "shelves", "drawers", "doors", "chairs", "pipe", "sconces", "doorknobs", "oven rings", "bulbs"; they're like lists of materials and ways of putting them together.  What is he telling us about photography?  Is he making the equivalence of sculpting light and sculpting materials?  Looking at Memorandoms it's sometimes hard to see the photography, but it's impossible to miss the sculpture.

In the late Nineteenth and early Twentieth centuries the sculptors Auguste Rodin, Medardo Rosso, and Constantin Brancusi used photography as a new tool helping them see their own sculpture and for disseminating it to others, and maintained strict control over it.  For the generation of sculptors that included Gordon Matta-Clark, Michael Heizer, Walter De Maria, and Robert Smithson, a good portion of their work in the late 1960s through the 1970s was predominantly known through photographs, because it was physically impossible to bring into the gallery or was done in inaccessible locations.  Part of this was a conscientious attempt to avoid participating in the art market and the consumption of art as a commodity.  Partly it was a sly acknowledgment that most art was known to most people not through direct experience, but disseminated through photographs in art magazines and slide lectures in art schools.  Avoiding the market was a youthful, utopian idea that none of the artists really wanted to succeed at.  Because unless they were living on trust funds, all the trips to the western United States, the earth moving machinery, the rents and the food bills had to be paid by someone.  Eventually Smithson brought in his piles of gravel, and Matta-Clark his cut out sections of buildings.  

If Nizam is a sculptor, why doesn't he show the sculptures?  He has removed from them all those characteristics that make sculpture what it is: the somatic, physical presence of three dimensionality, the experience in time of moving around it, the multiple viewpoints, and the democracy of the viewer being able to choose how and from where to look at it.  By denying access to the sculptures, they are as lost to us in time as are the people that once touched their parts as utilitarian objects.  Just as the sculptures are memorials to the former tenants, the photographs are memorials to the sculptures.   More cleverly, as examples of disembodiment and loss, it's possible to see an empty home as synonymous with a photograph of a sculpture.  Having done so much to deny his sculpture its body, is that enough to ipso facto determine Nizam a photographer?  That wouldn't be satisfying.  Trying to see Nizam strictly as a photographer, and Memorandoms strictly as photographs, leaves a nagging feeling.  The care and quality of the sculptures argues against it.  And there they are again, sculpture vs. photography circling around and feeling each other, neither one being able to take a decisive decision.  In a very real way he's denied both photography and sculpture.

If you asked James Nizam if he were a photographer or a sculptor, it wouldn't make sense to him to parse the distinction.  One way or another it doesn't matter.  Nizam warmly embraces the ambiguity, preferring its freedom, and feels no responsibility to resolve the question.  His line of thinking reminds me of the mid-twentieth century heavyweight, American sculptor David Smith.  Until his life ended in 1965, crushed by a load of steel he was driving back to his home in upstate New York, Smith maintained that as an artist, it was his job to make the art, not to think about it.  But looking at art is different, and the question can't be so easily ducked.  It may be a woefully old fashioned distinction, but it frustrates me not to know.  Whichever way the answer falls, it changes the work and the approach to it.

I haven't thought about Smith in a while, but now that I do he also reminds me of the way Nizam animates his materials and how the sculptures of Memorandoms can be organized into two groups.  First there are those with more rational, formal arrangements of elements, like Pillar of Shelves and Tower of Drawers, which in their stability project a rigor and seriousness; then those like the hardly stable Stabile of Drawers; the Cascade of Doors with its jaunty conga line reference to Marcel Duchamp's Nude Descending a Staircase No. 2; the Entanglement of Chairs like circus acrobats; the aqueous Crescendo of Sconces; the robotic, vaudevillian plate spinner Arrangement of Oven Rings; and the Cluster of Bulbs like a froth of good ideas, that are animated with a haphazard humor that belies their somber context.

From nouns like "home", "loss", "memory", "sculpture", "photography", "drawers", "doorknobs", "pillar", and "hatch", Nizam has assembled quiet memorials that are elegant and sophisticated.  His art is an affirmation that the experiences of life can be transformed in and through art.  His lesson is to make the most of what time one is given.