James Nizam’s Ascensions of Time at the Burrard Arts Foundation Gallery is both superficially and conceptually engaging. By subverting our expectations in his photography, Nizam expands our conception of what the medium can convey.
Photography is normally seen as an artistic medium that uses light to capture an image of some space in a single moment. With this view, physical space is all that a photo captures; it cannot capture time in the same way that a film can. And so, maybe film can be said to have more expressive power than photography.
I personally have always preferred film to photography, in part because of the temporal limitation that photography has. In a film, you get a series of rapid frames that give the effect of elapsed time — or the movement of light. In a photo you have a single frame that can only capture a single moment with static light. But Nizam aims to question this distinction by showing us that time, through physical and metaphorical means, can be shown in a photograph.
He chooses architecture as the backdrop for his project. And what better subject than architecture, an archetypical symbol of physicality and space. But his photos aren’t straightforward pictures of rooms and buildings.
By projecting upside-down images of an apartment building on the walls and ceilings of a room, or taking the negative of a negative of a photo, Nizam disorients the viewer, even as the subject of the image is common and recognizable. In warping these images, he demonstrates that a photo of a room can be more than just a photo of a room.
Each photo looks highly constructed and aware of itself as being a photo. Of course it doesn’t seem natural for pictures of houses to be projected onto the walls of a room, and the projections of light are so deliberately positioned. Things like the juxtaposition of the outside of a house on the inside of a house feel unreal, and in a single image we can be inside and outside all at the same time.
In this way Nizam captures multiple moments in a single shot — film gets this for free. But in film, movement in a “shot” is only an illusion. A film shot is really discrete photographs quickly flashing before our eyes. It is only the very small changes from frame to frame that create the appearance of continuity. But still, each individual frame is a static photograph.
It is only the succession of multiple frames that makes film dynamic — and what Nizam manages to do is make a single frame dynamic.
Think of a photo as an imprint or copy of the light in a room at a given moment. By projecting light onto the walls of a room, Nizam changes the composition of light in the room. Thus, in a sense, he changes the physical architecture of the room. But the image that is projected onto the walls is itself a photograph of light taken at an earlier time.
By projecting the light from this image onto the walls of the room, Nizam embeds the light from the earlier physical space into the light of the current physical space. The result is a single frame of physical space representing physical space from more than one moment. Thus through metaphorical means, Nizam subverts the common conception that a photograph can only capture a single moment in time.