Kota Ezawa Mobilizing Conscience: Art + Protest
In this exhibition featuring two of his core video works, Berlin- and California-based artist Kota Ezawa traces the legacies and divergences of the relationship between photography and protest movements through incisive references to art, popular culture, and news media.
Ezawa’s work explores the appropriation of images and mediation of current events by meticulously recreating, frame-by-frame, animated sequences drawn from news, sports, cinema, and other sources. He uses basic digital drawing and animation software to distill these found images into his signature abstracted, flattened style. By reducing complex visual information to its most essential, two-dimensional elements, Ezawa questions the limits of photography’s ability to convey actual events and experiences, and highlights the historical and cultural distance between viewers and the depicted figures who feature prominently in public memory.
The animated video projection Lennon Sontag Beuys (2014) incorporates quotes from cultural icons and activists John Lennon, Susan Sontag, and Joseph Beuys on the functions of art and protest. Ezawa works with found footage of rousing public speeches that address notions of peaceful resistance: Lennon and Yoko Ono’s experimental “bed-in” protests, which coopted the media attention that surrounded them to spread messages of peace; Sontag’s lecture at Columbia University, which discussed how images of violence might be considered “instruments of protest”; and Beuys’ appearance at a public forum at the New School in New York, where he expounded on his thesis of “social sculpture.” Quoted some four decades later in Ezawa’s video is Beuys’ pronouncement on the occasion of his first visit to the US in 1974: “I would like to declare why I feel that it’s now necessary to establish a new kind of art, able to show the problems of the whole society.” By bringing together messages from these three distinct figures, Ezawa considers the ways in which artists can become agents of social change.
Previously exhibited in the 2019 Whitney Biennial, National Anthem (2018) draws from broadcast footage of NFL athletes protesting police violence and oppression toward the Black community in a powerful meditation on protest and patriotism, solidarity and hope. Ezawa hand-painted the individual images used to create the video, capturing key moments in the controversial protests: teammates gathered in solidarity; the empty scene resulting when players were banned from on-field protests; and former San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick taking a knee in protest for the first time. In her review of National Anthem, critic Aruna D’Souza writes, “By rendering these images in paint, allowing the camera to linger on them, and projecting them on a massive wall, Ezawa removes them from the unthinking speed of social media outrage and lets us dwell on the implications of the action and the reverence of the gesture.” This emphasis on slowing down, seen throughout Ezawa’s practice, offers visitors the opportunity to consider the complex, underlying mechanisms at play in how we witness actions of protest.
Curated by Jutta Brendemühl
Presented by the Goethe-Institut in partnership with the Japan Foundation and CONTACT
Kota Ezawa, born 1969 in Cologne, is a German-Japanese artist and Professor of Film and Fine Arts at California College of the Arts. Ezawa studied at Art Academy Düsseldorf with Nam June Paik and holds an MFA from Stanford University. He has had solo shows at Hayward Gallery Projects Space, London, and at the Vancouver Art Gallery, and has participated in group exhibitions at the Whitney Museum, New York; The Art Institute of Chicago; and Museo Thyssen-Bornemisza, Madrid. Ezawa was a resident at Goethe-Institut Villa Kamogawa, Japan, and his work is held in collections including MoMA and the Musée D’Art Contemporain de Montréal. Monographs include The Crime of Art and The History of Photography Remix.