Kota Ezawa’s Flat, Stylized Paintings and Animations Shed New Light on Historic Events
The world is flat in Kota Ezawa’s somber, stylized animations and lightboxes. Western pop culture meets watershed political events and even the odd conspiracy theory, but there’s no flat-earthers here. Still, plenty happens. American football players kneel during the national anthem; O.J. Simpson is acquitted; the Berlin Wall falls. The Beatles emerge from a plane, presidents are assassinated, and Mary Poppins floats gently down to Earth, carpetbag in hand.
In his paintings and video works, Ezawa depicts events that are at once world historical and banal. “I gravitate towards these almost overused moments, at least in Western culture, that have been played over and over, because I’m looking for some kind of community with the viewer,” he told Artsy. Relatability is key. He never makes work about his personal life, but rather chooses subjects that stem from shared experience or a collective consciousness—even if U.S. media dominance means that this is, in practice, American politics and culture.
At the 2019 Whitney Biennial, Ezawa presented a work from his series “National Anthem” (2018–19), which depicts a tide of NFL players taking a knee in protest of police brutality. “The piece really changed because of how the world has changed,” the Japanese German artist recalled, adding that he began the work while living in Germany as an expression of solidarity and a reflection of the U.S. from afar.
Ezawa feels much more conflicted about the Berlin Wall, which fell right after he graduated from high school, and forms the basis of his newest video work, THERISEANDFALLOFTHEBERLINWALL (2021). Until then, his German compatriots had been broadly averse to nationalism given the country’s ugly history, but reunification and a victory in the 1990 FIFA World Cup Final gave rise to an enthusiastic patriotism Ezawa found worrying.
Kota Ezawa, installation view of THERISEANDFALLOFTHEBERLINWALL, 2021, at 68projects, 2021. Courtesy of 68projects and Galerie Kornfeld.
After spending the pandemic working intensively on the Berlin Wall video for a recent solo show at Ryan Lee in New York, he felt there was a missing link to the present. Three weeks before the exhibition opened, the Taliban took over Kabul, and Ezawa was struck by images of people desperately climbing airport walls to board evacuating Western military planes. “I thought it was a sign from the universe that I had to include it,” he said. When the same show traveled to Galerie Anita Beckers in Frankfurt and Galerie Kornfeld’s 68projects in Berlin, Ezawa included a piece about former president Donald Trump’s proposed U.S.-Mexico border wall, which he “had no appetite” to show in the U.S., but felt made sense abroad.
Born in Cologne, Ezawa grew up listening to what he described as universal youth culture—more Prince and Elvis Presley than German musicians. He started out studying sculpture at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf. At the time, Nam June Paik and Nan Hoover were teaching, and Ezawa quickly switched into their video classes instead to experiment with tape recorders and machines. He went on to study abroad and earn his BFA at the San Francisco Art Institute, where he studied with underground filmmakers like George Kuchar and fell in love with the city. “San Francisco was very different in the 1990s,” Ezawa recalled. “It was very bohemian, very gay.” After completing an MFA at Stanford University, Ezawa was offered a teaching position at California College of the Arts, which he still holds. Today, he has an apartment in Berlin, is represented by a gallery in New York, and travels for residencies, but California remains his primary base.
“One thing led to the next,” Ezawa explained. “There was no big strategy in my career.” The artist is best known for his labor-intensive stop-motion animations made from watercolor paintings, but never studied it formally. Rather, he approached it more conceptually: “In art history, I always gravitated towards Constructivism and early 20th-century forms, and I thought animation was kind of a contemporary form of Suprematism,” he said, adding that he is more indebted to Japanese pop than digital design. At the time, the digital sphere was very 3D-focused. Takashi Murakami’s groundbreaking traveling exhibition “Superflat,” which first showed at MOCA Los Angeles in 2001, marked an important shift for Ezawa, and he began making flat work thereafter.
Flatness, for Ezawa, is a democratic, non-hierarchical form that facilitates access for the viewer. Many of his works are multi-peopled, a reflection of his belief that contrary to the 20th century and its great individuals, this century is much more driven by mass movements like the Arab Spring or Black Lives Matter. He is interested in disruptive, anti-bourgeois aesthetic movements, too, from Dada to punk rock, which found particular resonance in his 2021 piece Merzbau. The immersive lightbox-and-wallpaper installation takes its name from Dada and Constructivist artist Kurt Schwitters’s iconic installations. Unusually, Ezawa’s Merzbau is quite abstract with little representational content. He finds this refreshing, given that conversations about his work tend to focus on the events depicted: “It’s a little bit more open and people can just say, ‘Oh, it looks trippy,’” Ezawa said. “There’s nothing to decipher this time.”
Ezawa draws further parallels to mid-20th-century forms like monochromatic or all-over painting, where the edge of a painting is just as important as its center. “They have such a power,” he marveled. “I thought of flatness and this simplification as a chance to get through to the viewer. I think my best work has been kind of universally legible.” He also notes that “in the U.S. and maybe also Europe, there’s almost a celebration of dilettantism or amateurism as an artist. Nobody takes offense that I didn’t study animation. You do whatever you want.” He contrasts this to the tradition of painstaking apprenticeship in Japan: “I felt almost like, how dare I make animation if I didn’t study it for years and years and years?”
If anything, Ezawa sees his work as being more in conversation with painting and conceptual poetry, both formally in his assemblage method and in terms of his friends and the scene around him. He emphasized the differences between his work and narrative animation, the latter of which relies on devices like character and plot. Since his earliest student work, Ezawa has been experimenting with purely textual pieces, but struggles to ensure they remain non-didactic and open-ended. “In a way, it’s funny,” the artist said. “I think the work I do is already kind of text-based; it’s just my own alphabet and my own vocabulary I’ve created over the years.”
Thumbnail image: Kota Ezawa, still from “THERISEANDFALLOFTHEBERLINWALL,” 2021. Courtesy of the artist and RYAN LEE.