Almost two years in the making, Kota Ezawa’s powerful new video work recreates the familiar scenes of a global moment—the rise and fall of the Berlin wall. The wall is symbolic several things across the word: for many, its rise and fall famously bookends the Cold War; for locals, its existence represents a chasm in German society. Regardless of a viewer’s personal memory or relationship with the erstwhile Berlin Wall, they are invited to re-consider it with Ezawa’s shimmering watercolor stop motion video. Based on widely available and viewed footage, the video begins with somber scenes of barbed wire and daring escapes that occurred during the two weeks it took to build the wall in 1961. It then switches to celebratory scenes of cheering crowds and gleeful destruction as the wall falls on the night of November 9, 1989.
Kota Ezawa : THERISEANDFALLOFTHEBERLINWALL
“In 1989, I had just completed my Abitur (German high school diploma) and had started going to art school in Stuttgart in the south of Germany. My feelings about the fall of the wall were pretty complex. I had relatives in the East and was happy that they were now free to travel. On the other hand, I was fearful of the rise of nationalism and patriotism that came with the reunification.” Ezawa explains. “I don’t have a precise memory of the moment but more of the time leading up and following the fall. There were demonstrations every Monday night in East Germany in the months before the wall came down. The fall of the wall felt like the release of a huge tension that had built up for some time.”
In many ways, Ezawa’s new Berlin Wall video and accompanying watercolors can be considered a sequel of his previous project National Anthem, which depicted NFL football players kneeling during the American national anthem before football games in 2016. The video and watercolors generated from that project were, like for the Berlin Wall, based on publicly-available footage of the protests which he studied frame-by-frame to translate into hundreds of watercolor. Known for his work with found images and archives, Ezawa’s work generally gravitates to society-forming or shifting moments in culture, history, or politics. He responds to images that trigger an emotional response—often keepsakes of massive cultural moments that have become backdrops of the spaces the artist inhabits. In recreating powerful social moments in past works such as the Simpson Trial, the NFL National Anthem protests, and now the Berlin Wall, Ezawa strips these moments of their temporal patina, forcing the viewer to re-examine the familiar without the distraction of contemporary commentary.
In her review of Ezawa’s presentation of National Anthem at the 2019 Whitney Biennale, Andrea D’Souza wrote: “By rendering these images in paint, allowing the camera to linger on them, and projecting them on a massive wall, Ezawa removes them from the unthinking speed of social media outrage and lets us dwell on the implications of the action and the reverence of the gesture.”
Ezawa became a dual US and German citizen in 2012. The stories reflected upon in both the National Anthem and THERISEANDFALLOFTHEBERLINWALL videos have a personal tie to his life—though the new German content make a more personal reference to the artist’s background and upbringing. Neither piece derive from a nationalistic sentiment, rather, they appeal to the universality of distinct moments in two nation’s histories—the impact of which resonate far beyond their borders. Both videos are tied in some way to the national anthem of the respective nation the narrative is centered around. National Anthem was a reflection of a contemporary moment at the time it was made, and its slow, dedicated reconstruction presented the moment under a new and purposely reverential light. Its soundtrack—the Star-Spangled Banner—is naturally at the center of the video’s narrative.
THERISEANDFALLOFTHEBERLINWALL, on the other hand, extracts its subject from twentieth century history and technically deal with two historical moments instead of one—thus reinforcing their roles as literal nation-forming moments in German history. Though the video is not so explicitly centered around the German national anthem, Ezawa incorporates the melody of Joseph Haydn’s Opus 76 No. 3 in his narrative of the Berlin Wall, thus investigating what both symbols of national identity reflect within German history.
“The duration of the animation is partly determined by the length of the music,” Ezawa explains. “I was aiming to build a contrast or conflict between image and sound (particular in the black and white portion) where the romantic melody by Joseph Haydn is set against the harrowing images of people fleeing the soviet sector of Berlin. What is seen is the construction of the wall are the attempts by East Berliners to escape to the West as the wall is closing.” The video also incorporates a short excerpt of Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall, Pt. 1” to accompany scenes of the wall’s destruction in 1989, thus underlining the shift in tone and spirit between the wall’s 1960s rise and 1980s decline.
Germany’s relationship towards its own national anthem reflects the complicated and delicate relationship the country has with its past. Haydn’s hymn was written in 1797, and in 1848, the poet August Heinrich Hoffmann von Fallersleben wrote its lyrics as an ode to German unification and a eulogy to the monarchy. To endorse its republican and liberal tradition, the song was chosen as the national anthem of Germany in 1922, at the dawn of the Weimar Republic—but upon the takeover of the Nazi regime, lyrics that originally intended to serve as a call for a unified nation above regional difference became misinterpreted as a justification for German expansionism and ethnic supremacy. The first stanza of the song was kept by the Nazis as a vehicle for German nationalism during the second world war. Upon being split by the rise of the Berlin Wall, Haydn’s melody was re-instated as the national anthem of West Germany, though the first and second stanzas were eliminated and only the third stanza was retained to be sung on official occasions. Upon German reunification in 1990, the third stanza was confirmed as the national anthem.
This complicated history is implicated in Ezawa’s Berlin Wall video with his brief use of Haydn’s melody in contrast to the building and tearing down of the Cold War’s most famous symbol—which alternatively split and united a volatile, unsettled people on the heels of a mass genocide and two authoritarian regimes. In his use of two important national symbols—the wall, iconic yet physically obsolete; the anthem, controversial and ongoing—Ezawa invites his viewer to delve into the convoluted psyche of a nation still in progress.
This exhibition would not have been possible without the support of Andreas Reise, Brooke Wentz, Jana Ezawa, Jeff Enlow, Melek Zertal, Nathan Petterson, Pamela Wilson-Ryckman, Rhiannon Thayer, Roger Waters, Roy Ng, Ryan Lee Gallery, Tugce Evirgen Ozmen, and Zora Ezawa.