Seeing Photographically: The Drawings of Kota Ezawa

Kota Ezawa, Polaroid Supercolor 1000 (2005)
One of the many challenges of teaching a dedicated history of photography course is trying to instill the concept of media specificity and how powerfully the means of representation influences the circulation of meaning for photographic objects. This is especially true when trying to make sense of how artists and art institutions have dealt with photography as art and photographs as art objects from the early twentieth century to the present. Today, photography occupies a very privileged position in the contemporary art world and for collectors there appears to be little distinction between the value of a painted work and one that is photographic. The prices paid at auction for photo works are quite staggering and all of the record setting sales have occurred in the past decade or so beginning with Andy Warhol’s photograph of Robert Mapplethorpe in 1987 and culminating more recently with the highest price paid for a photographic work, Andreas Gursky’s 99 Cent II Diptychon (2 c-prints mounted to acrylic glass), an image showing what appears as a highly superficial and flattened interior photograph of a supermarket that sold for over three million dollars in 2007 (see picture below).

Andreas Gursky's 99 Cent II Dyptychon set the record in 2007
as the most expensive photograph sold at auction. Notice the
superficial nature of both its form and content.
Living in Vancouver, which at times seems like ground zero for so much discussion about all things photoconceptual—the artists Jeff Wall, Roy Arden, Ken Lum, Vikky Alexander, Ian Wallace, Stan Douglas, and Rodney Graham etc… all made their start in the city and have come to constitute the Vancouver School of photography—it is difficult for many students to understand all of the important transitions in the debate concerning photography and medium specificity that lead to the challenging discourse around photography's importance in today's art context. Recently, however, I was introduced to the work of Kota Ezawa, a Japanese-German artist whose art practice is centered on exploring the transfer of media forms (in his case from photography to drawing/animation) as a potent site of investigation. 

I first encountered Ezawa’s images when I viewed his video work that was part of an exhibition called CUE: Artist’s Videos set up on the exterior portico of the Vancouver Art Gallery during the Olympic Games. Researching his practice, I was struck with the way in which Ezawa engaged his interest in the powerful photographic imagery that accompanies the representation of historical events and how the final outcome of transforming images from the photographic to the drawn/animated revealed a process of reception and meaning-making that exposes the flattening out effect that reduces specific moments of history to a series of iconic signs.
Kota Ezawa, still from Lennon, Sontag, Beuys (2004)

One of the most powerful examples of this emerges in his video work Lennon, Sontag, Beuys (2004) which features animated and audio loops of John Lennon and Yoko Ono's 1969 interview at a bed-in for peace at an Amsterdam hotel, a Susan Sontag lecture in 2001 at Columbia University, and performance artist Joseph Beuys speaking at the New School in New York in 1974. Watching the video, it is striking to consider how the stripping away of photographic details through the drawing/animation process (many of which we either know through memory of seeing the actual footage or through photos of the people in question) results in a kind of sign making system that takes place right in front of your eyes. As Lori Waxman persuasively argues in a review of the work in Parachute, the superficial nature of the drawings only underscores the received superficiality of these events, “The triptych plays simultaneously and cacophonously, reducing three critical players in the recent history of cultural protest to an appealingly repackaged sound bite of flat, adolescent colour blocks. The speakers' physical accessories-Lennon's granny glasses and long beard, Sontag's dark hair and sophisticated scarf, Beuys's fedora-solidified here as geometric elements, render their respective images all the more iconic. Simplified quotations on both a visual and a content level, Lennon Sontag Beuys graphically exaggerates and further elevates the kind of sieve through which we too often prefer to trickle our information and inspiration: South Park, the cartoon show for adults.”

In a recent San Francisco Museum of Modern Art video discussing his practice (see below), Ezawa describes his interest in what he calls “symbolic image content” developed through the process of re-presenting photographic images. Critically, he understands this process as a way of thinking about the power of semiotics--or sign systems--in our contemporary world. And although I do not necessarily agree with Ezawa that drawings hold a richer symbolic image content than photographs (I do not even think we can begin to fully understand the implications), I am very taken with the way in which his practice helps us think about the critical distinction between visual media forms and the role of photography in shifting the ways in which we perceive history and memory.

Further Reading:

Sukonik, Alexandr. "The Productive Limitations of Art Photography." Raritan 23.2 (2003): 129-141.

Szeman, Imre, and Maria Whiteman. "The Big Picture: On the Politics of Contemporary Photography." Third Text 23.5 (2009): 551-556.