In his New York solo début German-Japanese artist Kota Ezawa put archival television and video material to unusually bold use in his Lennon Sontag Beuys (2004), a reverberant and graceful inquiry into the power and overlap of popular culture, political action and high art.
The show centred on an eponymous animated triptych, a deceptively simple three-card trick demanding total attention. Selecting documentary clips from John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s 1969 Amsterdam ‘sleep-in’ for peace, a 2001 lecture by Susan Sontag at Columbia University and Joseph Beuys’ 1974 lecture at the New School for Social Research in New York, Ezawa excerpted two or three sentences from each and ran these in a continuous loop after rendering them as chunky, simplified vector-based animations. In each video snippet the speaker is peripherally muffled by the adjoining two, the voices presented unadulterated, every-one recognizable and indelible. Beuys is characteristically obfuscatory and elusive, Sontag velvety but rather self-consciously portentous, and Lennon acerbically sincere in his idealism. In their own way each represents their national and local culture in Ezawa’s nod to the three nationalities that most shaped 20th-century Western thought.
Lennon explains that the photo-op honeymoon performance piece is a ‘kind of salesmanship’, a means to spotlight his and Ono’s non-violent Gandhian campaign for peace and justice. Sontag declares that at most art can record but not avert the horrors that shape human history, although she posits photographs ‘ideally’ as tools of moral awakening. Beuys retails his theory of ‘social sculpture’, which he saw as nothing short of evolutional. Three different takes, broadly, on art’s power and/or impotence as a force for social change. Shifting one’s attention in this forced exchange of views from left to right, the ideas go from whimsically specific (stay in bed to achieve peace) to grandiose (an art ‘that can be shown to a wide public […] of all living beings’), even as the receptive audience goes from massive and general to limited and self-selected.
The clumsy images augment the inherent tensions produced by our preconceptions about the individual speakers, thwarting any conditioned response to the familiarity of the voices. Ezawa’s rendering software approximates the look of crude, sugar paper stop-frame animation, awkwardly mimicking the basic expressions and gestures of his three protagonists. But the rough cartoonish result is the opposite of exaggerated caricature. Instead, Ezawa flattens and collapses these famous visages until he achieves the generic sameness of an airline safety card. Running in simultaneous loops of asymmetrical duration, the inelegant portraits compete with each other much as the voices do. From Lennon to Sontag to Beuys, each consecutive image employs fewer colours and details than the last. Sugar-paper greens, browns, reds, yellows, black and white depict Lennon (and Ono), along with the pack of journalists that ring the bed. The scene shifts briefly from their faces to a baton-shaped, baby-blue microphone, its suggestive elevation to catch Lennon’s words perfectly capturing the secret hope of every journalist in attendance that they’d spot the Ono-Lennons doing more than just lounging. Against a background of lavender, Sontag’s torso is a study in browns, greys and black, her outfit centred on a pea-green scarf reminiscent of neckwear favoured by the American Founding Fathers. Beuys, sporting his trademark felt hat and installed next to a piano, is a fitting study in grey, white and black.
Assuming that most of his viewers will recognize these figures, Ezawa offers specifics when you crave universals, generalities when you want details. The closer you listen to and look at this three-way dialogue that will never cohere, the less you know. Lennon Sontag Beuys simply refuses to be consumed passively. Though Ezawa cleverly refrains from any kind of declaration of his own position, he encourages viewers to engage rather than watch passively. You can’t help but fill in the gaps of what is missing in the before and after of each image, even as you strive to glean more information from each iteration of the maddeningly short loops. What’s shown seems too simple for what’s being said, each perspective nearly eclipsing the others.
Ultimately Ezawa demonstrates a refreshing audacity in his understanding and manipulation of the power of frustrating an audience. By requiring complete engagement and offering no solace, his high-stakes gamble pays off. Though Lennon Sontag Beuys may appear initially like a glib homage, its gossamer grip won’t let go: by manipulating three iconic media heavyweights, Ezawa shows himself to be a real contender.