Emma Newbery | November 5th, 2020
Chantal Zakari’s show A Work in Progress opened at Kingston Gallery on November 4th, 2020. In some sense, because of the show’s timing, this title remains true even after its opening—the show greets an audience emerging, nerves frayed, from an inconclusive election night. “On one hand,” she muses over FaceTime, “what is the place of making artwork that immediately responds to what’s happening? Then what is the place of doing a long term project? I mean, ideally, I wish my show did not open on that day, but,” she smiles ruefully, “it’s out of my control.”
Zakari’s show is a symbolically rich minefield of American memory, perhaps uniquely suited to meet the current, American mindset. As Zakari explains: “I’m not an artist that defines herself, by the medium. In previous shows, I collaborated with my husband, who’s a photographer, but we’ve done resin sculptures and oil paintings, too.”
Zakari privileges concept over form, with fascinating results. Her approach may be unorthodox, but it is highly intentional. When I ask more about the oil paintings, she smiles: “I didn’t paint any of it. I actually sent it to a place in China where they painted it.” She takes in my startled expression. “Conceptually,” she adds, “there was a reason why we did that. What came back, you know, had the residues of the production from China. And I mean, it’s always embedded in the conceptual ideas, right?”
Her concept for A Work in Progress, an exploration of the accumulated meanings and memories in the Watertown Arsenal, expands her audience’s understanding of both the physical and emotional architecture of the historic manufacturing hub. “I was trying to think of how to approach this to express that layering, because I was especially interested in the layering of the real estate. The arsenal, that space, that real estate, is a work in progress, right? It can change. So the metaphor that I thought of is to have photographs from the archives that are all overlaid.”
Zakari has chosen an excellent site for an exploration of architectural pentimento, one with layers of personal as well as material significance. During World War II, the Watertown Arsenal employed 10,000 people in the manufacture of cannons, bullets, and by the 1960s, in the operation of a nuclear reactor. The workforce was primarily composed of immigrants, for whom the Arsenal’s steady salary served as a way to launch into the middle class American experience.
“It was a living place,” says Zakari. “They would tear down the old buildings, build new ones, and tear down those. It kept renovating itself. It’s just this gorgeous building. So I started thinking, how is it that these buildings are so beautiful, and they were made for a factory? I look at the place sometimes and think, how did we lose this sense of aesthetic?”
Interested to see the documentation of the Arsenal’s transformation, Zakari dove into the online photo archives. “You wouldn’t believe the size of these cannons that were produced. It’s a technological marvel. You see humans that are like this small,” she draws her fingers together, “next to these giant cannons.” The old photographs, now digitized in high resolution, were originally made using large format cameras. For A Work in Progress, Zakari reproduces and reorganizes these photographs to bring the story out of the conventions of time and space, and into a plane where her audience can connect emotionally.
“I came across some portraits that were really beautiful. So that led me to think about the workers and who the workers were,” she explains. “I really zoomed into the workers so these are extreme details, about half the size of the original photograph.” She flips her camera and clicks through a few of the portraits that are part of the show. She adds soft commentary—“I mean look at this guy. Isn’t he so pensive and philosophical?”—thawing the edges of these frozen images. “These are some really psychological portraits,” she concludes. “But if you ask me what these machines are, I have no clue what they do.” She laughs, “I’m not really focused on that.”
Despite her empathetic approach to the subjects of her show, one of Zakari’s major goals is to push back against a romanticization of the past. “The past was not great,” she acknowledges, “and the present is very complicated. I want the installation to reflect the complexity. This is not nostalgic at all.”
There is a particularly jarring element in one of the islands of layered photographs that Zakari hopes will drive this point home. “I have an image of a mule with his head blown up,” she says, pulling the image up on her screen. “He was used as part of one of the experiments. The photographer took the photo at the moment the head was blown off. It’s horrendous.”
“But, you know, life is very complex,” she adds. “That’s why I often stay away from political artwork. Sometimes I feel like it has a moral superiority to it. And I hate the idea that the artist comes to a project, knowing what’s right and wrong. There are times when things are right and wrong, it’s just that to me, those are not the interesting art pieces. In art, we’ve had a lot of this discussion about social practice. And to me, the most interesting social practice pieces are the ones that question issues, not the ones that come with a moral.”
“I am idealistic,” she explains, “but I just don’t have these illusions that we can get rid of all this.” She splays an excerpt from her Arsenal News 2020 publication, which accompanies the show, across the screen. “In this article here, it says that Home Depot actually took a cut to be able to give more money to their workers for their health insurance. I think life is a lot more complicated than black and white.”
Zakari’s choice to traffic in sepia tones in order to debunk these same reductive or romanticized shades in our own understanding of society pays off. “I’m interested in connecting to communities and doing things that are very specific. But I’m not interested in, you know, having a message that can be spelled out. Once you’re in this complexity, it’s very difficult to think of war as bad or good. There are so many nuances.”
Ghosts peer from around the gallery’s corners; they press their noses up against the plexiglass that holds them. In some cases, viewers can even hear their voices.
“I’ve always wanted to use the center gallery,” explains Zakari. “I thought that that would be an opportunity to project something. The idea was that I wanted to film at a place, you know, with this architecture, but I was thinking of ghosts of people appearing in this film. It’s based on movement that comes from, you know, human movement and labor and daily activity.”
Another component of the installation features a layering of actual people, not just movement. “There was this woman I heard on NPR a couple of years ago. She’s an opera singer. And her name is Ruth Harcovitz. And she has this amazing voice,” says Zakari. “I had a very specific song in mind that I had found out about the song called, ‘Praise the Lord and Pass the Ammunition.’ It was written by a priest during the Pearl Harbor bombing.”
“As artists, we have a really important responsibility to open up these visual ideas to others,” she concludes. “In some sense, this connects to social practice, because I want to open it up out of the gallery. I really hate the fact that art has closed itself into a bubble. I love the white gallery cube, you know, that’s also a really nice place to experiment with ideas. But the reason I publish so many books is because those go to anybody who’s interested in that subject. That, to me, is exciting. I want to open up my art.”