3.9 / Review

The Curse of Dimensionality

By Laura Cassidy January 31, 2012

In the Jorge Luis Borges short story, “Mutations,” an anonymous narrator recollects her/his experience of looking at three different symbols: an arrow on a wayfinding sign, a decorative rope in a photograph of a Magyar horseman, and a runic cross in a cemetery. “I do not know why I marvel at them so,” Borges writes, “when there is nothing on earth that forgetfulness does not fade, memory alter, and when no one knows what sort of image the future may translate it into.”1

Kota Ezawa’s current exhibition at Haines Gallery conveys a similar sense of wonder in tracing the mutation of symbolic forms as they are translated over time. United by an exaggerated sense of flatness but diverse in materials, this body of work—which includes paper cutouts, drawings on transparency, a silkscreen on mirror, enamel paint on plywood, stereographic prints, and digital animation—evinces Ezawa’s dexterous thinking about his materials’ plasticity and resilience. However, the titular curse of dimensionality provocatively points to the ways that Ezawa’s art also frustrates the experience of looking. The title accentuates the underlying resistance of language and representation to signifying historical truth, even though these methods are our primary means for collective remembrance and critical reflection.

This tension is palpable in Moon from Earth / Earth from Moon (2011), a diptych of drawings on transparent film mounted on adjacent lightboxes. With corresponding scales and horizon lines—the Moon on the left and the Earth on the right—the two celestial objects become interchangeable. On the one hand, the diptych seems to be a simple juxtaposition of two landscapes. On the other hand, the two perspectives—of looking up at the Moon, then down at the Earth—creates an uncanny equivalence of scale, bringing to light how the conventions of landscape photography have shaped the significance of historical events.

The right side of the diptych, Earth from Moon, recreates the iconic Earthrise photograph taken by Apollo 8 astronauts in 1968. Ezawa employs just three basic shapes and five colors to reproduce the venerated image in his characteristically flat and intentionally reductive style. A muddy brown trapezoid with a ragged edge represents the surface of the Moon. It provides a familiar horizon line, layered on top of a black square that represents the daunting vastness of outer space. Earth appears as the blue-marbled and compressed shape in the middle ground of the composition, an incomplete circle partly eclipsed by the shadow of the moon.

Kota Ezawa. Moon from Earth / Earth from Moon, 2011

Moon from Earth / Earth from Moon, 2011; two Duratrans transparencies & two lightboxes; edition of seven; left: 22 x 32 x 2 inches, right: 26 x 26 x 2 inches. Courtesy of the Artist and Haines Gallery, San Francisco.

 

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NOTES:

1. Jorge Luis Borges, Collected Fictions, trans. Andrew Hurley (New York: Penguin Books, 1999), 314.

Kota Ezawa. Nature Scenes, 2011

Nature Scenes, 2011; nine mounted stereographic prints & plywood viewer; edition of five; viewer: 9 x 7.5 x 15 inches, each slide: 3.5 x 7 inches. Courtesy of the Artist and Haines Gallery, San Francisco.

Ezawa’s use of a famous photograph as source material brings to mind the rephotographed iconic images in the work of Sherrie Levine and Richard Prince. But whereas these artists have been the subjects of controversy and accused of stealing the distinctive aura of the original artworks, Ezawa’s lightbox drawing, importantly, traces the primary forms of Earthrise onto a new medium, eliminating all depth of field. His graphic drawing truncates the power of the original photographic image and its authority, as conferred by NASA, as an accurate index of the objective reality of deep space. Ezawa’s flattened reproduction charges that the photographic medium is a fictive technology, prompting the viewer to critically reflect on an image that persists in cultural memory as an uncontested and totalizing view of Earth from the Moon. Photographed while the astronauts were orbiting the Moon on a potentially perilous mission, this image, with its fixed-point perspective, symbolically positions them as technologically empowered giants looking down on the diminutive planet. 

Most of the pieces in The Curse of Dimensionality reflect on more familiar terrain. For example, Nature Scenes (2011) is a three-part series of stereographic prints in which each group comprises nine different scenes from Ezawa’s six-minute digital animation, City of Nature (2011), which is itself a compilation of images from popular films such as Deliverance (1972), Jaws (1975), and Brokeback Mountain (2005). A few of the Nature Scenes are available for viewing through custom-made plywood stereoscopes (predecessors of today’s 3-D technology) mounted on the gallery wall at eye level, requiring visitors to look through the magnifying lenses to experience the effect of dimensional depth.

Constructed from plywood, the rectilinear stereoscopes have a pleasingly DIY look. With unfinished surfaces, they complement the printed Nature Scenes. However, the darkened edges of the stereoscopes have a draft-like quality: they appear to be stenciled in space, like flattened images in and of themselves. Their attentive and bold construction subtly comments on the prints, which distill how Hollywood conventionally constructs the idea of nature as something wild and untouched. In this way, Nature Scenes reveals the artificiality of representing the natural, critiquing our futile desire to use technology to record and preserve that which is so heavily mediated.

The Curse of Dimensionality includes more than twenty recent works by Ezawa and demonstrates his sustained effort to capture that delicate tension inherent in representation, as well as its attendant specular technologies, which simultaneously distort and reflect reality. He approaches images as inadequate records of and substitutes for experience, which is always subjective and shaped by our particular locations in time and space. Yet he also recognizes that images carry symbolic power that we intuitively recognize, sometimes crave, and often believe to be true.

 

The Curse of Dimensionality is on view at Haines Gallery, in San Francisco, through February 18, 2012.

 

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