James Nizam: Trace Heavens
We first came to know James Nizam’s work when he was a 2011 Sobey award long list nominee and saw images of his striking Memorandums series. Consisting of accumulations of chairs, drawers, doors and shelves – everyday, standard objects arranged into precarious piles and twisting towers – they established him equally as a photographer and sculptor. These structures were sculpted from the remnants of the soon-to-be-demolished Little Mountain public housing project, and were ephemeral monuments to the lives lived therein. Trace Heavens is the evocative title of Nizam’s current show at Gallery Jones which continues his ongoing interest in recording his architectural installations and interventions. This time he has fashioned his work from light, a time-honoured art historical subject, to create temporal sculptures captured in remarkable black and white photographs.
In his Thought Form series, Nizam harnesses the sun’s rays and contorts them into geometric shapes: a cube, overlapping triangles, a tetrahedron. Working in a darkened studio, the artist allowed in a single concentrated beam and documented its movement, deflecting it between precisely angled mirrors around the room. Even with the aid of artificial fog to highlight its presence, the streak of light was only traceable for about 3-5 bounces; for more complicated constructions Nizam would record the light through multiple exposures over time, with the mirrors’ placements carefully calibrated to compensate for the sun’s constantly changing position, and willfully defying the notion that a photograph captures a single moment in time. Viewing these abstract, linear forms their planes jump into the foreground then back, literally destabilizing the idea that photography offers an objective or static point of view.
Although many of his endeavours result in a photograph, these document Nizam’s skill as a sculptor: his facility with space, his interest in the physicality of materials, and his ability to conceptualize three-dimensionally. Like Gordon Matta-Clark before him who was best known for his “building cuts” in which he radically intervened in existing constructions—for example, removing sections of a structure’s floor, ceiling and walls—in Shard of Light, Nizam commandeered a decrepit house slated for demolition on the River Road in Delta and cut a structural incision through the roof and wall. He then rebuilt this cut to a one-inch thick slit to create and photograph a sculpture produced from the sun’s rays that cast a shimmering curtain recalling early Renaissance annunciation paintings. This gentle flood of sunlight which cuts a diagonal swath across the room uses the space itself as a camera of sorts – an image-making device responding to and recording the existence of light. Here, the light itself functions as both material and subject.
Nizam’s architectural interventions continue in the work Drill Holes Through Studio Wall, the title of which explains the artist’s process but does nothing to convey the luminous magic of the resulting backlit photograph which seems more like a document of a celestial phenomenon than a studio-generated image. Piercing hundreds of holes of varying sizes through the wall of his studio to form a perfect circle, the resulting glowing orb conjures the astral, the solar and the cosmos at large. With his interest in channelling light, Nizam has tapped into a centuries-old captivation with and mythologizing of the sun and its movement, a fascination that bewitched entire ancient civilizations that built observatories and structures just to trace its movement and honour it.
Although his photography has garnered him the most attention, Trace Heavens also contains other interesting examples of Nizam’s practice including Door Slab, a door cast in Cinefoil, a matte black aluminum used on sets to soak up light. Door Slab continues the artist’s use of quotidian materials as the basis of his practice. Delicately propped up against a wall, it is a veritable contradiction in terms – the flimsy material betraying its original intended use. Interminable Structure, a sculpture made of rebar pulled from a building wreck in black nickel chrome, was composed during the installation for the show – a tangled web of twisted metal, simultaneously monstrous and strangely elegant. Nizam’s devotion to everyday objects both as material for and subject of his work has resulted in some startlingly beautiful and poetic works.