Kota Ezawa lightboxes on view in the Mead Art Museum's Rotherwas Room
Works by Kota Ezawa on view in the Mead Art Museum's Rotherwas Room.

On March 18, 1990, two thieves posing as police officers stole 13 artworks estimated at $500 million from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. In Rotherwas Project 2: Kota Ezawa, Gardner Museum Revisited—on view at the Mead Art Museum through June 1—artist Kota Ezawa gives the disappeared Gardner artworks new life in the form of dynamic and colorful drawings set in glowing light boxes.

In the following interview, Ezawa talks with Assistant Professor of Art and the History of Art Niko Vicario about the FBI case that sparked his interest in the Gardner Museum heist and led him to recreate the 13 still-missing artworks.

Niko VicarioWhat attracted you to the Gardner theft as a starting point for these works?

Kota Ezawa: I started out creating re-makes of paintings from the FBI online database of stolen art in the summer of 2015. Among them were the Rembrandts from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. While I was making these drawings, a surveillance videotape from the Gardner Museum surfaced in the media. It was said that the tape contained potential evidence that could lead to the whereabouts of the stolen paintings. I immediately thought that this tape was the perfect companion to the paintings and that the two together would make a compelling subject for an exhibition. This is one of the cases where one could really say the idea came to me rather than I had this idea.

Kota Ezawa lightboxes on view in the Mead Art Museum's Rotherwas Room
Clockwise from top left: Ezawa's recreations of a Chinese vase, Rembrandt's "A Lady and Gentleman in Black," Degas' "Le Sortie du Pesage," and Rembrandt's "The Storm on the Sea of Galilee" with a small self-portrait and a Napoleonic flagpole finial.

NV: Interesting. What had brought you to the FBI database of Stolen Art? 

KE: I've long been fascinated with the intersection of art and crime. One of my first animation films, “The Simpson Verdict” (2002), is a 3-minute long animated courtroom drawing. I find the National Stolen Art File by the FBI pretty amazing. It's an art collection curated by thieves.

NV: Are you yourself an image thief, Kota?

KE: I'd be comfortable calling it that. It doesn’t encompass all I do but thievery in a philosophical way is a part of it. Image-making and drawing constitutes another large chunk of my activities—but the copy/paste portion of my project is essential. 

NV: You mention copy/paste and elsewhere you've identified with DJs and remixers. How was a cultural phenomenon such as Google Image Search affected image-making? Have you come across the idea of photography as a kind of soul theft?

KE: It's funny you combine Google Image Search and soul theft in your question. It made me think that Google Image Search seems to steal people's imagination. Everyone is on image steroids constantly and there is no need to imagine anything else. Google Image Search also has changed the way most artists draw because there is an image reference available for everything at all times and less of a need to invent. On the other hand, Google Image Search has led to a kind of anarchy in image rights which propels collage, assemblage and other visual DJ practices. 

In the end, I don't think the human drive to make images suffers in the age of the Internet. I'm also not so concerned about the human soul. I love the scene in the movie Blade Runner where Rachel, a replicant (artificial human being), sheds a tear. Artificiality and soulfulness are not necessarily polar opposites. Perhaps one should say that Google Image Search is changing the nature of imagination rather than stealing or destroying it.

Kota Ezawa lightboxes on view in the Mead Art Museum's Rotherwas Room
Detail of Kota Ezawa's recreation of Rembrandt's "A Lady and Gentleman in Black" (2015), with reflections of the Rotherwas Room windows.

NV: Now a banal question: Why lightboxes?

KE: The short answer is because they glow. The long answer would be that lightboxes are tricky objects. In the worst case they can come across bulky and unpoetic. In the best case, and that's why I have worked with them so often, they can transform a space and provide a kind of immaterial experience. In the beginning all of my work was video. Lightboxes were the closest thing to video monitors in the world of 2D art. That's why it felt natural for me to work with them. I also like the idea of a film or video where the image never moves.

NV: That makes sense. I'm intrigued by the way you work between media in a way that difficult to pin down. The lightboxes add a level of complexity—somewhere between painting, photography, animation and what Isamu Noguchi called light sculptures back in the 1940s. I'm curious, would it be interesting for you to show these works at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston? What does it mean to show them in Los Angeles or Amherst rather than in the site of the paintings' disappearance?

KE: Of course it would be very enticing to show the Gardner Museum lightboxes at the ISG Museum in Boston. I know my New York gallery contacted the museum but a show there didn't seem possible, at least in a short amount of time. I'm not certain what the ideal setting for this work would be. In general, I believe that each work or image finds its right context after a while. It can be a museum or gallery, a public space or someone's home. I'm hopeful that our show in the Rotherwas Room at the Mead might turn out to be this magical match between a space and a group of artworks. The combination of old oak panels, stained glass and new LED lightbox technology has a lot of potential in my mind. It's a myth (slowly disappearing) that most contemporary art does best in white or black cubes. Perhaps it's a bit premature to celebrate, but like I said, I have a lot of hope!

See Kota Ezawa's works—on view in the Mead Art Museum exhibition Rotherwas Project 2: Kota Ezawa, Gardner Museum Revisitedthrough June 1, 2017. 

Ezawa visits the Mead on Wednesday, April 5, at 6 p.m. for a gallery talk that is free and open to the public.

Kota Ezawa lightboxes on view in the Mead Art Museum's Rotherwas Room
Rotherwas Project 2: Kota Ezawa, Gardner Museum Revisited, on view at the Mead Art Museum through June 1, 2017.