Home -make that an empty home -is where the art is for Vancouver's James Nizam. The artist, who was longlisted for the 2011 Sobey Award, has done several compelling projects in abandoned domiciles. Now, with a CONTACT festival show on in Toronto, Nizam talks to Leah Sandals about Jenga, junk heaps and jogging our collective memory.
Q You built these sculptures in Vancouver's Little Mountain housing complex just before it was demolished in 2009. How did you proceed?
A I didn't have a design governing what I was doing. I was just taking materials and working almost like a kid with Jenga. My basic restrictions were stacking, leaning, assembling and letting materials dictate the form. I think the most successful ones came out really quickly; they kind of border on collapsing themselves. Thinking about the structure that they're actually built in -this social housing block that's sitting there, towering and about to be knocked down -I kind of like that there's a mirroring between the form and something that's about to unbuild itself.
Q How did you get access to the complex?
A When I was younger, I was like, "Yeah man, I broke into so many spaces! I'm hardcore!" But I don't like to get too brazen anymore. For this, I wrote a letter to Sam Rainboth, a senior manager at BC Housing, and I just made a pitch: I'm a photographer interested in heritage preservation, I think it's important for me to document the site and I'd like to do something site-specific. And -I mean, actually, it was too easy -I got the keys to 224 apartments. Like the entire complex, basically. The apartments were completely empty and beautiful. This is actually the sad part -that they were heated, that there was hot water and they were just sitting vacant. I collected materials from all over the building, but the only room I was able to use for photography was an apartment on the third floor that wasn't boarded up. The entire complex was boarded up because of copper thieves and people breaking in.
Q So where were all these doors and drawers from, exactly?
A Bedrooms, living rooms -just everyday space. I was thinking about Gaston Bachelard, a philosopher who looked at shelves and drawers in the home as structures for memory and imagination. I like that these are the shelves that actually held personal belongings. These are the doors that opened into private spaces. These are the chairs where people sat in a community room and discussed issues. These are the lights that illuminated bathrooms, the things that people manicured themselves in front of. There's neat meanings in objects and materials, as mundane as they maybe seem.
Q You've done other projects in empty or abandoned houses. Why is this a recurring theme?
A A lot of these works came out of a specific time in Vancouver. PreOlympics, Vancouver was going through this massive transformation, and I think I was just responding to my neighbourhood. I saw wall-busting going on a couple blocks from where I lived -massive blocks of homes getting torn down. So these types of spaces were actually really easy to access at the moment that I was making the work. I also think a fair bit about the idea of home and ruin in Vancou-ver. You have all these empty homes -a lot of real estate that's bought up but just sitting and sort of waiting.
Those empty homes are there for just a second and then they disappear.
One of my other projects was called Anteroom, after the space that exists between two spaces. To me, these homes are a kind of interstice between shelter and rubble, void and ruin.
Q So what does the Little Mountain area look like now?
A It's really sad. It's an empty lot. It seems like maybe the development was overbid and there wasn't enough money to actually realize it. I don't know what's happened with the people. Everyone did get paid a stipend to help them move. But there were a lot of people who were very resistant and were there until the diggers came in.
Q And what's next for you? A I'm trying to come up with a process whereby I can use photographic emulsions on the surface of architecture. I've done camera obscuras -kind of like turning entire rooms into pinhole cameras -before; now I'd like to actually graft an image onto a wall and cut that wall away and show a fragment of a wall, but with a chemical memory on it.
- James Nizam: Memorandoms shows at Toronto's Birch Libralato to June 4.