When the first “not guilty” verdict is read, defense attorney Robert Kardashian’s dot eyes become sharp accent marks — surprise? remorse? — a light switch flipped. Moments later, when the second verdict is announced, Simpson’s mouth expands into a smile, like a balloon inflating. Ezawa, who once had a job filming legal proceedings, combines a courtroom artist’s restraint with a cartoon animator’s affinity for action. Perhaps best known for “National Anthem,” an illustrated video montage of NFL players kneeling in protest that was shown at the 2019 Whitney Biennial, Ezawa describes his practice of reimagining historic events via animation as a “meditation on images.” The result, here and in “National Anthem,” amplifies a newsworthy event’s psychological details over its sensational ones.
“Drawing from Memory,” the third and final installment in the Hirshhorn’s digital exhibitions series “In the Beginning: Media Art and History,” features six short animated videos (three by Ezawa). It’s as much about collective memory as it is about control of memory, interrogating how media — news, the Internet, even built environments — shape and limit our understand of the present and the past.
“Stereoscope,” a mostly black-and-white, hand-drawn animation by William Kentridge, tells the ongoing story of Soho Eckstein, a White, South African businessman who is a recurring character in the artist’s work and who avoids facing the realities of life under apartheid. A blue line — representing collective, anti-apartheid fervor — extends from scenes of state violence to protests, moving through communication networks: phone lines, radio transmitters, the very wiring of the city.
Meanwhile, Eckstein remains in his office. Numbers scribbled in a ledger become a visual rhyme with images of crowds in the streets. At one point, the blue line stretches toward Eckstein’s office and shatters against the exterior wall. He seems to think himself impervious to what’s happening outside, but there is no such separation: At the end, Eckstein stands with streams of blue flooding from his pockets, like waterfalls of guilt.
The desire to control our world, to mediate the flow of information — or even to stand outside of history — is made material in “Wilderness Utopia,” by Terence Gower. Gower creates a CGI rendering of the town of Hirshhorn, Ontario, designed, but never realized, by architect Philip Johnson for collector Joseph Hirshhorn to house his art. Filled with homogeneous modernist architecture, the design looks alienating, even oppressive. Think: a town composed entirely of repurposed Apple stores.
The video reads like an advertisement for an all-inclusive resort. A computer-generated female voice touts the virtues of “a modern utopia in the wilderness of Canada,” alluding to “Hirshornites” who live in “modern and efficient blocks of flats.” Yet it seems to be a town where utopia edges toward its opposite: Residents will “enjoy the beautiful, healthy environs,” the voice assures us — with an unspoken message: or else.
Two of the six videos focus on a very specific mediator and teller of history: the artist.
In “Paint Unpaint,” Ezawa remakes Hans Namuth’s famous footage of Jackson Pollock, dripping paint over a pane of glass, and shot from below. Here, the medium bends to Pollock’s whims — our very screen becoming a canvas for his work. In the original film, Pollock says of his practice, “I can control the flow of paint: there is no accident.”
Sondra Perry’s computer-animated “Graft and Ash for a Three Monitor Workstation” examines the restrictions of a medium that promises infinite personalization. She renders herself as a Sims-like avatar. But early on, the avatar notes that she is only a rough estimation of Perry. The artist’s “fatness,” she points out, was not possible to represent with the options available in the software. To the tune of “relaxation” music that the avatar says she found on YouTube, Perry’s double condemns the “just world” theory — the idea that good people receive good things — and how White American ideals of productivity harm Black people.
At one point, the avatar speaks directly to us. Noting the free time it takes to view art, especially in a gallery in the middle of the day (the way this work was originally intended to be seen), the avatar asks the viewer, “How many jobs do you have?” In Perry’s work, the screen is not an open-ended means for expression. It is a barrier. Her digital avatar glitches. It shakes and stutters like a scratched CD. In pointing to the limits of her art, Perry, paradoxically, takes control. To embrace the medium, she breaks it.
If you go
Drawing From Memory
Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. hirshhorn.si.edu/exhibitions/in-the-beginning-media-art-and-history/.
Dates: Through Dec. 31.