The video guy

Pub date January 24, 2007
SectionArts & CultureSectionVisual Art


PREVIEW The public furor set off last November by the imminent publication of onetime football star and Avis flunky O.J. Simpson’s now-quashed book, If I Did It, on the murders of his ex-wife, Nicole Simpson, and Ron Goldman, demonstrates how pivotal the 1995 Simpson trial was to so many, just as Newsweek‘s recent publication of details from a key chapter shows how much it continues to compel — and how tender the wounds remain on this country’s notions of race, justice, media, and celebrity. To many TV viewers overseas, the trial might have merely summed up the insanity of stateside news priorities when the World Cup telecast was interrupted for the Simpson Bronco chase, but for Kota Ezawa, who had just transferred from the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf to the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI) at the time of the trial, it was ripe, rich stuff.

The televised Simpson verdict announcement — documented in the snippet Ezawa reworked for his brilliant 2002 short animation The Simpson Verdict, now showing at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City — "was really a shock to everybody, but a very different kind of shock," Ezawa said. "It was a real kind of shock and a very strange shock because it wasn’t a bomb hitting the ground! It was just a court official saying two words, ‘Not guilty,’ and it was enough to send really huge seismic waves through the entire nation. That I find interesting — that it was so psychological, a psychological event."

Sitting at a work table scattered with paper collage scraps of fallen soldiers intended for his 2006 "The History of Photography Remix" project in a spare, white one-room studio at the corner of 16th and Mission streets, the soft-spoken, even-tempered Cologne, Germany, native in a brown hoodie seems like the last person who’d gravitate toward incendiary subject matter such as the Simpson trial. Or the assassinations of Presidents Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy, which are paired in his 2005 animated short The Unbearable Lightness of Being. From the aforementioned pieces to 2003’s Who’s Afraid of Black, White and Grey, Ezawa’s work boils history-making spectacle down to ultraflat pop shapes and hues — adding another layer of commentary to the race cards dealt in The Simpson Verdict. Though Ezawa’s works mimic the primitive, jerky moves of South Park, they rarely make light of history’s dark corners — rather they are minimalist meditations on memorable images, sampling, quoting, recropping, and editing visual pop ephemera and masterworks culled from our collective memory’s moving-image files.

And Ezawa’s reenvisionings, or remixes, have found a growing audience, eliciting an enthusiastic review in the New York Times for his current exhibition at Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art in Hartford, Conn. SF Cameraworks recently feted the new Nazraeli Press volume compiling Ezawa’s "The History of Photography Remix" works, and this week the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art includes the artist in its biannual Society for the Encouragement of Contemporary Art (SECA) Art Award Exhibition.

"We were all enormously impressed by his practice — its clarity and range, the distinctness of his vision," SFMOMA painting and sculpture curator Janet Bishop wrote in an e-mail. "He was a top contender from the start of the award process." As a SECA award recipient, Ezawa will show parts of "The History of Photography Remix" as well as a two-screen animation, Stereo Stolen Honeymoon, which he described as a trailer for a longer adaptation of the purloined Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee wedding and honeymoon video, which the Guggenheim Museum is in talks to show.

"The Anderson-Lee tape is really most striking for how mundane it is," Bishop continued. "It has only become iconic because of our cultural response to it. Ezawa’s piece holds a mirror to our collective obsession with every tedious detail of celebrities’ lives."

A yearlong project featuring Ezawa’s idiosyncratic, hand-drawn computer animation and aided by assistant Ryan Thayer, voice actors, and assorted interns, the Anderson-Lee piece is also one of the artist’s most overtly comic pieces: the tabloid twosome’s cartoonish lifestyle slips seamlessly into Ezawa’s format as they exchange aggro vows, stroke tats, and chat up their pooch.

"I feel that I’m in the business of making moving paintings more than I’m in the business of making videos with a beginning and an end and a kind of dramatic curve," the 37-year-old self-described "video guy" confessed across his work table. "It’s a different kind of attention that people bring to a gallery or to a museum, and in that way, it almost has to work like a painting, meaning some people will watch it for 10 seconds, some people will watch it for a minute, but it really depends on how they will get grasped or not grasped by the image."


The half-Japanese, half-German artist traces his own initial attempts at image-making to ancestors. "If you ask any artist, if they’re really honest, there will be something way, way, way back — even sometimes before you were born," he said with a small grin. The drawings of his great-grandfather Hans Gelderblom, an architect, made an impact, as did his Japanese forbears’ silk paintings and bronze vases.

As a child in rural southern Germany, Ezawa etched his own path with cartoon flip books and hand-cranked panorama boxes resembling TVs. "I think there’s one thing about the countryside that informed or really influenced me and why I am how I am now," he explained. "In the city I think even as a teenager there’s already these peer groups — sometimes it’s ethnic, the Latino kids or the Asian kids, some listen to punk music or some are really good at school or math. In the countryside it doesn’t really work like that — you’re just stuck with your age group, so one of your friends is a fantastic athlete and a piano genius, and your other friend is a borderline alcoholic heavy metal fan, and you all just converge and hang out. And so I think even today … I sometimes think I don’t have any taste, you know?"

That ability to switch from high to low, between mediums and messages, fed his work at the Düsseldorf art academy, where he tried his hand at photography and performance art before scoring an opportunity to study with Fluxus video art innovator Nam June Paik. "He wasn’t there a lot, but to me, he was a really big inspiration," recalled Ezawa, who made his first video in order to be in Paik’s class.

At first he put together "still videos that didn’t move at all": one of his first, I Want to Buy the Empire State Building, was made when the structure was actually for sale. Working pre-Photoshop, Ezawa used a graphic machine to print the title sentence along with his phone number, reproducing the words on a C-print before hanging it on the wall and videotaping it. Paik had the piece, along with other student works, shown at the Anthology Film Archives in New York City. "What’s similar to the videos I make today was I didn’t think of video as this entertainment format," Ezawa said. "I thought of video more as a light box. It was really just like this illuminated image coming out of the TV."


Ezawa’s light-box reworking of Yves Klein’s Leap into the Void — part of "The History of Photography Remix" — looked down from an otherwise pristine wall above us. After finishing his BFA at the SFAI and his MFA at Stanford, Ezawa began teaching at California College of the Arts. While poring through the school’s slide library for a presentation on the history of photography for an introductory media arts course, he found himself thrilled: "I thought it was almost like DJing. ‘Oh yeah, this one will be really good. Maybe I’ll play this one after this one.’ " He took the Klein image home, scanned it into his computer, made a graphic sketch over the original, and kicked off his own "History," a compendium of transparencies, slides, collages, and intaglio etchings drawing on images as disparate as Ansel Adams landscapes and the surveillance shot of Patty Hearst and the Symbionese Liberation Army at the Hibernia Bank in San Francisco. "That kind of became the idea for the work, to make this fake history slide show," he said.

Ezawa’s strategy stirs up the familiar cauldron of copyright issues in this age of digital reproduction. "You could call it visual hip-hop," he quipped. "But you can also call it somehow ripping off." He’s had only a few "sensitive reactions" from the creators of the original images. "I had long discussions, and it all got resolved," Ezawa said. "But with the book it was like, ‘OK, if you’re making this book and you’re ripping off tens and tens of photographs, you don’t want to have 30 angry photographers sending nasty e-mails." So in an effort to avoid a Simpson-like "legal nightmare," he contacted every shooter he sampled, and "the reaction was 95 percent very positive."

The SF artist has understandably mixed, and remixed, feelings about copyright, which he describes as being "really used to protect the interests of Walt Disney [Company] as opposed to actual artists. But then I feel like events like YouTube really help everybody and also the emergence of China as an economic player in the world, where they have Dior handbags that might say ‘Djor.’ I do think copyright might not exist much longer, though maybe long enough to ruin all of our lives."

He gave a compact chuckle. But then, the artist who once sang and played keyboards along with his wife, Karla Milosevich, in the Helen Lundy Trio seems to have his own quirky handle on the problem. "You know, like any hip-hop artist or DJ, I find my ways to manage this." *


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