San Francisco

Kota Ezawa

Kota Ezawa has made a career of reducing moving and static images to digital cartoons—likenesses characterized by their fields of unmodulated color, South Park–like animation, and impassive emotional core. His range of iconic source material has included footage of the O. J. Simpson trial (The Simpson Verdict, 2002), Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee’s sex tape (Two Stolen Honeymoons Are Better Than One, 2007), and Alain Resnais’s Last Year at Marienbad (LYAM 3D, 2008). The last—when viewed through accompanying blue-and-red lensed glasses—could be experienced in 3-D. The affectlessness of Marienbad’s story line, gliding camera work, and emotionless actors is intensified by the illusory depth.

For his third show at Haines Gallery, Ezawa took on another cinema classic, Sergei Eisenstein’s Battleship Potemkin, and created dozens of ink drawings, each presenting the first frame after every cut in the celebrated Odessa Steps sequence. (These and additional drawings have been published in book form.) Save for a few Cyrillic title cards, the renderings possess the same monochrome graphic quality and emotional weightlessness as Ezawa’s other works. As if engaged in the cryptic game with matchsticks that serves as a plot device in Marienbad, the artist acts as distanced tactician. He extracts Eisenstein’s images from their fervently partisan if not propagandistic context and makes them coolly contemporary.

At first, the sheer number of drawings, which bear traces of the human hand, seem to honor Eisenstein’s cinematic achievement. But pieces in other media muddy the implications. Additionally, Ezawa made a video version of Eisenstein’s montage (essentially a slide show of computer-generated drawings based on the film) and also created light boxes, for which he restaged some of the tableaux with live actors, whom he photographed on a rooftop of the San Francisco Art Institute. Some of the figures were in motion when they were photographed; others held poses: The result is a curiously self-conscious fusion that highlights the artifice. When Eisenstein’s iconic imagery is seen in so many different media, its original meaning is made all the more distant.

The most conceptually significant gambit here was the inclusion of a fragment of historical documentary film, found black-and-white footage from the early 1960s featuring a demonstration against the House Un-American Activities Committee. The circumstances in this largely unmodified clip—the protesters are assembled on the grand staircase inside San Francisco’s City Hall—recall the masses stampeding down the steps in Eisenstein’s montage (shots reproduced, of course, in the drawings and light boxes here). Then, much in the way the czar’s Cossacks would gun down Odessa’s crowd, the San Francisco cops manhandle the smartly dressed ’60s radicals. This footage and the digital slide show of the montage were presented on blocky Sony monitors (the sort associated with classic ’70s video art) so that the similarities between them extended also to presentation.

Flattening his subject matter, Ezawa erects a hermetic hall of mirrors in which reality and fiction are difficult to distinguish. While his inclusion of protest images might suggest political intentions, the work on view here, given its utter lack of affect, sometimes reads as an elusive, formalist exercise.

Glen Helfand