Review by Jameson Johnson
Chantal Zakari, Strategic Plan, 2017
In short, pithy phrases, the work of Chantal Zakari coyly draws attention to the detrimental tendencies of universities that engage in neoliberal and capitalist vapidness.
Reflecting upon “Strategic Planning,” Chantal Zakari expressed that, “as a professor, I witnessed how our previous administration had wanted to employ some kind of a ‘Strategic Plan’ in our small art school. It all sounded great, but for the students and faculty, what counted was the learning experience in the studio classrooms.”
Installation View, Chantal Zakari, Strategic Planning (2018) photo courtesy of the artist and Kingston Gallery
In her solo exhibition, Zakari quite literally highlights the hollow vocabulary, jargon, and lingo that is often employed as rallying phrases for change. A series of colored pennants, flags, and regalia hang upon the walls of the Kingston Gallery in a similar fashion as that of a locals only sports bar. Yet instead of team names and rallying cries, the banners exude familiar phrases such as “Synergy” and “The Competitive Landscape.”
The phrases at hand are simultaneously facetious yet pointed. Zakari’s careful selection of phrases, color patterns, and images is antithetical to the manner in which universities seem to throw these same buzzwords into thin air. Adorning the gallery walls, the pennants stand as a testament to the changing values of higher-ed institutions. Rather than prioritizing the educational experience for their students, the administrations within universities have perhaps become far more concerned with status, profits, and rankings.
Chantal Zakari (2017) Photos courtesy of the artist and Kingston Gallery
Each of the accompanying images in the exhibit were collected from the internet using copyright-free, clip art assets. As we are constantly inundated by images, they too begin to lose their meaning and become stale with overuse. The embroidered graphics upon Zakari’s pennants are reminiscent to that of what might be found in a boardroom presentation. Yet instead of shiny graphs, Zakari presents figures, animals, and symbols that both mock and emphasize the gilded age of feigned intention.
In the utmost neoliberal fashion, phrases such as “Sustainability” have been co-opted to take on a dual meaning. While universities strive towards more environmentally sustainable practices, this very act can be viewed instead as a sustainable business endeavor. On this particular burgee –or sailing flag– an aptly positioned life preserver ring has been embroidered. Signifying an effort to “save” institution rather than environment, the emblem stands as an almost comical rendering of sustainability as a last ditch effort rather than a genuine endeavor.
Chantal Zakari, Sustainability (2017)
Humor plays a large role in Zakari’s exhibition. She states that, “though it may appear to be, this show is not meant to be cynical, but rather a careful exploration of meaning and action in academia.” However, phrases such as “Funded Growth Through Debt” can’t help but stand as a devastatingly realistic display of the detached, capitalistic relationship between universities, the federal government, and unrelenting student debt. Presented as a medieval gonfalon, the flag acts as a symbol of proclamation – a public display of ownership, affiliation, or support. In this regard, the university’s financially exploitive and business centric tendencies are flaunted rather than kept in secrecy.
Chantal Zakari, Funded Growth Through Debt (2017)
Zakari is currently a professor on sabbatical at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University. While working on this collection, her art and exploration has evolved — bringing several new mediums and materials into her practice. Beginning first with the pennants, her work experimented with the world of vexillology. For those of us previously unaware (as I was,) vexillology is the scientific study of the history, symbolism and usage of flags. As a newfound vexillographer, Zakari worked with a flag design business in Watertown, who, by hilarious coincidence, often creates ceremonious flags for several universities in the area.
The claims made in Zakari’s work are neither exaggerated nor contrived. In Boston alone, the business and banking of the university system has pushed several smaller arts institutions into a series of “mergers and acquisitions” – a phrase usually reserved for the corporate world. To accompany the exhibition, Zakari created a publication aptly titled “Catalogue of Flags” which features essays, excerpts, research, and reflections on the notions of the deflating university system. Resembling both an order catalogue and a shiny brochure, the publication draws attention to issues that fall between the articulation of Noam Chomsky and the humor of buzzfeed style frustration.
Chantal Zakari, Excerpt, “Catalogue of Flags”
While “Strategic Planning” is on view at Kingston Gallery until January 28th, we can certainly expect more from Chantal Zakari this year.