Starting in the summer of 1994, the world was held captive for more than 250 days by a famous televised murder trial. Anyone who had a TV or radio followed the trial of former football star O. J. Simpson. On October 3, 1995, the jury found Simpson not guilty for the brutal double murder of his estranged wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ron Goldman.
I clearly remember the moment when Judge Ito read the verdict: “not guilty.” I had to sit down. I was working in the studio of Crown Point Press with a team of printers, and we had paused our work to watch the trial. Over the following days, the video of Judge Ito reading the verdict was played over and over on local news channels. It was a memorable moment because of the effect it had on race relations in the United States: Simpson was an African American married to a white woman. The verdict cleaved the population in half, mostly along racial lines.
In 2002, Kota Ezawa, a German-born video artist, created an animation drawn from actual TV footage of the infamous and highly contested verdict. Ezawa’s video debuted at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts exhibit Bay Area Now 3. I remember being rooted in front of Ezawa’s video, reliving that memorable verdict. Seven years had passed since the trial, yet the power of that moment was just as conspicuous as it was in 1995. Ezawa’s flatly drawn figures, reminiscent of the work of Alex Katz, captured every nuance, every move. An audio recording of the trial served as the soundtrack. The first thing I noticed was the infinitesimal smile that crossed O.J.’s lips when the verdict was read. Ezawa’s work created a powerful rendering of an influential moment. Now, when I think about that verdict, it’s Ezawa’s video I remember, not the actual footage.
Seventeen years later, Ezawa has done it again. His film National Anthem debuted at the 2019 Whitney Biennial. It depicts another historically racially charged moment when our country was cleaved apart, this time by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick. In 2016, Kaepernick took a knee during the National Anthem in order to protest police violence against unarmed black men. His kneeling protest sparked both sympathy and outrage throughout our country as the debate about what his actions represented spread like wildfire through the media and the nation’s politics.
Kota starts by making his drawing on the computer. It is a labor-intensive process in which he carefully retraces each image using Adobe Photoshop and Adobe Illustrator. He then turns the digital images into videos, light-boxes, sculptures, paper collages, and prints. For National Anthem, Ezawa created each frame in Adobe Illustrator and then meticulously hand water-colored each frame, giving the movie a grainy quality reminiscent of old films and old emotions that run deep. In his distinctive minimal style, the film depicts the essence and culmination of the Kaepernick effect on the NFL and our country. As the soundtrack of the National Anthem plays, we watch as the entire lineup of football players takes a knee during the anthem. It was a memorable moment, carefully orchestrated by the NFL during a volatile, historically significant moment, as white nationalists decried the Black Lives Matter movement. Again, it is Kota’s film that sticks with me, rather than the actual TV footage.
I worked with Kota in the print studio in both 2006 and 2009. Kota’s approach and methodology taught all of us how to be exacting and patient when making the plates for his prints. During our second project, we ended up inventing a new method of step-etching a spit-bite that worked perfectly for the black-and-white images he was working on based on Eisenstein's film Battleship Potemkin.
In 2016, I had the pleasure of assisting Kota on a large-scale low-relief sculpture for a public art commission, which hangs in the International Terminal of San Francisco International Airport. When we were fabricating the sculpture, several assistants and I would pile into a car with Kota and drive to South San Francisco. It was a long commute, but the best part of my day. I would sit in the car and listen to Kota discuss his life, his ideas, and the artists and people who influenced his work.
He recalled his decision to switch from sculpture to filmmaking as a freshman at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf. He was working with found objects, plaster, clay, and other messy materials. He described having a “creative crisis” of sorts until he visited the video department. The uncluttered, organized, clean space appealed to his creative instinct. He had one professor at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, Gerhard Merz, whose constant slogan was that "art is ice-cold calculation" and the highest mental/spiritual exercise of its time, that art follows a lineage of practitioners from Piero della Francesca to Kazimir Malevich, Donald Judd, and Andy Warhol. Ezawa found inspiration in the work of these artists and connected to the idea of being a thoughtful and deliberate artist.
Kota is a deliberate thinker, and his work reflects that. While I think I always knew that it makes a difference to be deliberate in work and in life, he reminds me how important it really is.