Meditations on the unsettling idea of home

Two very different Vancouver artists use photographs, installations, and craft-based arts to explore the workings of past and place.

Diyan Achjadi has lived everywhere from Indonesia to London, giving her a powerful perspective on political unrest. Mark Mushet photos.

Diyan Achjadi

One of Diyan Achjadi's creative inventions is a cartoon girl-child, dressed in pink, playing innocent games amid the smoking wreckage of bombed-out cars and war-torn cities. She has appeared in a number of the artist's multidisciplinary works. From a Web project to ink-jet prints, an animated video, and a mixed-media installation, this figure seems to represent a transition between Achjadi's early investigations into gender roles and conditioning and her more recent concerns about the regional and worldwide impacts of militarism, terrorism, and war. In her candy-hued world, the little girl also speaks to the ways violence is insidiously perpetuated through children's media, including books, movies, and TV cartoons.

Recently returned from a six-week artist's residency at the Banff Centre, Achjadi is sitting in the sunny living room of her rented apartment, at a peaceful remove from large-scale conflict. It was just such a remove, however, that provoked her anxieties and led to an extended body of work involving the little girl in pink. In 1998, when she was living in New York and shortly before she attended graduate school in Montreal, violent political unrest broke out in her birthplace, Indonesia.

Achjadi's concern for family and friends there was amplified by her sense of helplessness and remoteness from the events. "When the political upheaval began, I started researching militarism," she says. "I tried to make work about it but didn't really know how to enter it, because I felt like I was looking at it, reading about it, from an outsider's perspective. So the girl became this avatar to try and talk about these things."

The daughter of an Indonesian father and an Anglo-Saxon Canadian mother, Achjadi recounts spending her formative years in Indonesia. As a child and teen, however, she also moved with her foreign-service family from Hong Kong to London to Jakarta to the outskirts of Washington, DC, before settling in New York for 10 years. In July 2005, after teaching at the University of Maryland and with an extensive exhibition history behind her, she arrived in Vancouver to take up an assistant professorship at Emily Carr Institute, specializing in printmaking.

Achjadi is fluent in both traditional and digital printmaking techniques, and her work shifts back and forth between the handmade and the machine-made. Her early projects and installations also involved craft-based arts, including sewing and embroidery. "For me, there's always been a conflict between craft and printmaking," Achjadi says, alluding also to its potential for mass production and dissemination. "The reason I've been attracted to print is that there's something that looks official about it. It has this guise of authority."

At the same time, she says, "I do the craft because I enjoy the labour and I enjoy the tactility of the materials." During her Banff residency, she started a body of work, downloading images and text from on-line photo sites, screen-printing them onto cloth, then embroidering over top. Her subject, still evolving, is the idea of home and how it intersects with patriotism and officially sanctioned notions of national identity. Images include miniature landscape scenes that range from tropical beaches to northern forests, and are suggestive of Achjadi's border-crossing existence. They suggest, too, our struggles to know who and where we are in the world.

James Nizam sees the term artist not as a job title but a process. Mark Mushet photos.

James Nizam

Imagine a young man scoping out a house, breaking into it, and, after an hour or so, leaving again. Imagine, then, that the house is abandoned and that what this man, this burglar, takes with him are photographs he has shot on-site–not silver, jewellery, or electronics. Poetic and haunting, these images register decaying interiors in a state of ghostly metamorphosis, a condition in which memory and anticipation coalesce in one suspenseful moment.

James Nizam is reluctant to describe himself as an artist, insisting you must earn that term through dedicated practice and substantial accomplishment. "Being an artist is not now or tomorrow; it's a long process of developing work," he says, sitting in front of his computer in the rented half-duplex he shares with two friends in south-central Vancouver. Still, even if he doesn't believe he's earned his artist's badge through his sculpture, drawing, design, and photography, he has been remarkably productive since his 2002 graduation from UBC.

In 2003, Nizam collaborated with two colleagues in creating an ambitious, architectonic installation at the Surrey Art Gallery. An interest in the built environment was sown, and he began to take colour photographs of the interiors of buildings in transition, abandoned and awaiting demolition. "You find these spaces and then you try to test them out," he says, "to push them, to take them a little bit further." The two series of chromogenic prints that resulted from this pushing have earned him the attention of critics, curators, and collectors, and representation at Gallery Jones in Vancouver and at Scalo/Guye in Los Angeles.

Looking Out/Looking In, taken at night inside the old Woodward's building, speaks eloquently of death and memory, of social and economic histories. It also articulates the way the past haunts the present, as does Dwellings, a series of startlingly beautiful images also shot at night, inside abandoned houses. Using a long exposure time and a flashlight as his major source of illumination, Nizam recorded deteriorating architectural forms and objects left by previous occupants, sometimes as he found them, sometimes altered to form his own impromptu installations.

Of mixed Lebanese and British heritage, Nizam spent a peripatetic childhood bouncing from England to Brunei to Oman and back to England before landing, with his family, in Vancouver at the age of 12. A sense of psychic unease and displacement has lingered, he observes, and undoubtedly informs his subject matter.

The photographs on which Nizam is now working are again set in deserted houses slated for demolition. His ambitious parameters–to achieve each image, he creates a camera obscura in a found room by blacking out windows and mounting a lens that projects an upside-down image of the outdoors onto the interior walls, then shoots the resulting juxtaposition of inside and outside–demand that he work by day rather than by night, with speed, stealth, and an amplified awareness of his surroundings. In advance of each shoot, he scouts locations like a filmmaker. "These homes and the landscapes around them are changing," Nizam says. "I'm constantly trying to chase this thing with so many variables"–this thing being the unified vision of an artist, whether he thinks he's one or not.