A Conversation with Kota Ezawa

"Much Ado About Nothing"—work in progress, Kota Ezawa studio, Oakland, CA. Photo by Pierre-François Galpin.

A couple months ago, The CJM Assistant Curator Pierre-François Galpin visited artist Kota Ezawa in his Oakland studio and talked about his next project at The Contemporary Jewish Museum, part of the In That Case: Havruta in Contemporary Art ongoing series. Then a work in progress, the three-channel video Much Ado About Nothing is a collaboration between Ezawa and contemporary dancer James Kirby Rogers, San Francisco-native and now part of the Kansas City Ballet. The installation opened to the public on July 28, 2016 and will be on view through July 2, 2017.

Pierre-François Galpin (PFG): The Havruta project re-interprets the Jewish tradition of dialogue and etymologically means friendship. Could you tell me a little about your relationship with James [Kirby Rogers] and describe how the video shoot went in January?

Kota Ezawa (KE): James and I lived in the same neighborhood in San Francisco for a number of years. His mother and I are colleagues, teaching at California College of the Arts. I’ve probably known James since he was 12 years old or so. James always struck me as an unusual, brave, and cheerful young man. I admire the fire with which he pursues his dancing career.

The video shoot went exceptionally well. Being an animator I had no real experience working with dancers or with camera equipment. We pretty much improvised for the entire 2 hours, experimenting with different music, camera angles, and dance moves. The result had little to do with what we set up to shoot but it pushed the project into an exiting direction.

PFG: Animation has known tremendous progresses over the decades, and has interacted with dance back to the 1920s in the Disney studios. What do you think are the major challenges of animating movements, especially choreographed ones—in a digital practice specifically to your work?

KE: The main challenge in creating this dance animation is the amount of drawings needed to represent the movement. Disney had the advantage of working with a large studio. For this project, I had to assemble a team of 5-6 artists drawing frames for a period of approximately 2 months. I’m used to working by myself and had to change my habits a bit, but in the end the process is really rewarding. I feel I’m learning a lot from my young collaborators and hopefully they get something out of this also.

PFG: What are your connections to dance and in what way(s) did your project with James influence them?

KE: An old friend of mine is a contemporary dancer and through her I’ve seen contemporary dance performances over the years, including the Pina Bausch dance theatre, Japanese Butoh, and the work of Lucinda Childs. I’m in no way an expert of the field but I can say I feel genuinely moved by watching dance more than other performing art forms.

Drawing James for the past 2 months, I learned a lot about the enormous control a dancer exercises over his or her body and also about the interplay between movement and non-movement that creates the sensation of dance. It also became clear to me that the work of a dancer and of an animation artist is very similar. We both try to create a dialogue with the viewer through movement that we produce using the tools and material at our disposal.

PFG: It is striking to me how the three-channel video piece you are creating relies on another person’s choreography and body, at the same time it seems very personal but visually almost anonymous. While this is the first time you are working with your own footage, how do you play with both known/or personal references and anonymousness in your work?

KE: I’m not too concerned about making work that is “personal.” Work always possesses a connection to the biography or personality of the artist but this is nothing I focus on or try to exploit. I am more interested in the general, what you call “anonymous,” ways in which an artwork can form a relationship with the viewer. I think of my films and other works almost like street signs whose purpose is to engage the viewer rather than transporting the idiosyncratic thought process of the author.

This might also be the result of my cultural background. Growing up in Germany, machine aesthetics (f.ex. techno music) had much more of a following in youth culture than here (where there seems to be a prevalence of hippie aesthetic). The “anonymous” look of my work might actually be an outgrowth of my techno culture upbringing and in this way relate to my personal identity as a European transplant.


Much Ado About Nothingwork in progress, Kota Ezawa studio, Oakland, CA. Photo by Pierre-François Galpin. 


About the Artist and Curator

Kota Ezawa often reworks images from popular culture, film and art history, stripping them down to their core elements. Working in a range of mediums such as digital animation, slide projections, light boxes, wood sculptures, Ezawa maintains a keen awareness of how images shape our experience and memory of events. His work has been displayed in museum exhibitions including at the Vancouver Art Gallery; the Hayward Gallery Project Space, London; the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington DC; and The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York City. His work has earned a number of awards, including the SECA Art Award of the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and a Eureka Fellowship from the Fleishhacker Foundation. He lives and works in Oakland.

Pierre-François Galpin is Assistant Curator at The CJM. His recent exhibitions include In That Case: Havruta in Contemporary Art—Much Ado About Nothing with Kota Ezawa and James Kirby Rogers, and The Bureau of Suspended Objects with Jenny Odell and Philip Buscemi. He is currently working on the upcoming exhibition From Generation to Generation: Inherited Memory and Contemporary Art. Prior, he worked at the Centre Pompidou (Paris) and Independent Curators International (New York), among other institutions. His writing has been published on different media, including The Exhibitionist, Art Practical, and exhibitions catalogs.


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