2Q-03: Chantal Zakari

Drop Dead Gorgeous

18 Publications, 2020

What struck me about Drop Dead Gorgeous (aside from its title, one of the best!) is the flood of insights and visual information one can draw from a microscopic, aerosolizeable virus. How are we, as a community impacted by a pandemic, communicating the story of this novel coronavirus Covid-19? Never mind, for the moment, successfully subduing it. Can we reach consensus about its form? If not, can there be an effective global response?

Where’s Dr. Fauci when we need him?

Global is the crucial concept. As she explains below, Zakari has compiled this hypnotic stream of imagery from sources on the world-wide communications platform called the Internet (the web if you’re pressed for time). If you skim this book you might think this is simply a catalogue of locally-generated illustration. Flip to the back of the book and, if your eyesight is good enough, you can trace all of her sources. (Unless the citation reads “can’t find it again.”) There are 94 illustrated pages in the book, most with multiple reproductions. To complicate matters, in a way that parallels the inherent complexity of deciphering the virus, the book has no visible page numbers.

I first met Chantal and Mike in Boston; we worked together to devise an installation at the Photographic Resource Center called 7 Turkish Artists.

Two Questions

Q-1: What compelled you to publish this material in this form at this time?

I was (still am) working on another project when the pandemic hit Massachusetts. Friday March 13 I was going to meet with a group of dancers that were getting ready to perform at the Watertown Arsenal for a film/installation piece I am preparing for this fall. In addition, I was researching at the National Archives and the Watertown Public Library, and interviewing former employees. All this was material for the work I was going to do this summer in preparation for a show in September about the Watertown Arsenal. The Arsenal project is about immigrant labor, production of bombs, ammunition, but also beautiful architecture and the current real estate market.

My plans abruptly had to stop. For the first week we were all in shock, of course, and then I began preparing for online teaching, which as everyone who went through this bizarre transformation knows was an overwhelming task. But then, I realized I had a lot more time in my hands. No commuting, limited grocery shopping, no socializing in person, no travel plans. I ended up spending more time on the computer. At the beginning of this book I felt the need to write during April, May, and June, 2020; I wanted it to be done by June and go back to the work about the Arsenal.

I have always done work based on my own lived experiences. So this came naturally, as we were all seeing images of this beautiful, but also extremely lethal virus. Collecting images from the screen and from the internet is something I have done since 2000 when I began working on webAffairs, a documentation of an online adult community. When you are stuck at home, and the computer is your only window to the outside world, it seems natural to collect images from the internet. Similar to what Mike [her husband and frequent collaborator Mike Mandel] and I did for They Came to Baghdad and Lockdown Archive.

for Leyla & Mike,

I’d quarantine with you again anytime.

dedication by Chantal Zakari

While collecting one thing that immediately interested me was that the same image could be used in an article in China, in Indonesia, in Iran, in France, and in the US. I was fascinated by the idea that these “illustrations” could change editorial contexts so swiftly. An image could be used in an article that was perhaps written in a nationalistic tone in China and travel the world to end up in an article with anti-Chinese sentiment in the US.

I was also interested in understanding who the artists were, the original authors of these images. Some are photos made with the electron microscope, others 3-D renditions by scientific illustrators, and many more by editorial illustrators. The electron microscope photos are colored by the photographer/scientist in order to emphasize different segments of the image more clearly. The palette they use is often hyper saturated and gives the image a psychedelic feel. The scientific illustrations on the other hand are recreations that are made to look like photographs.

They also borrow a lot from painting and the history of art. The colors relate to Renaissance and Baroque art, the compositions make homage to Impressionist landscapes. The problem of course is that Renaissance and Baroque paintings were designed to create a sensation of awe, mostly towards a divine representation, and make the viewer feel spiritual. When applied to Covid-19, this aesthetic conflicts with the subject matter. It fetishizes the virus. You almost want to inhale it, instead of escaping it.

I learned that many of the details in the images are filled in by the artists. Illustrators visually interpret the written information provided, but they often have to propose hypothetical situations. In the process they create new connections that are not necessarily based on evidence. In that sense they combine the real and unreal and help create the story of this virus.

no images were harmed, altered, or digitally manipulated in the production of this book.

all colors are fictional.

disclaimer by Chantal Zakari

Another interesting element for me were the overt cultural codes in the editorial illustrations. This includes the flags, people, folkloric patterns etc. Many of these images pretend to be culture-specific when in fact they were made by image banks, corporations selling clip art or stock photography. So the aesthetic is very bland and sterile. On the other hand, this is the first time in history that the entire world is looking at and using the same exact imagery to refer to a disaster. My friends in Turkey and I, here in the US, Brazilian, a Korean, or a South African—we all use the same exact image to understand this virus.

As I collected the images, I classified and sequenced them. That’s how I naturally think about images. However, this time the sequencing was more challenging because I couldn’t immediately find an ending. It was June; I wanted to go to press with the project and get back to my Arsenal project. But I could not find an ending to this book. There still isn’t an end to this pandemic. A lot of speculation and wishful thinking lead us to think there will be a vaccine and everything will go back to normal again. Then I found these amazingly crazy images of nano-bots fighting the virus. And I thought this could be the perfect Hollywood ending to a tense science-fiction story, my own version of Blade Runner, 2001: A Space Odyssey, and The Terminator.

Q-2: What photo books, mags, or zines released in the last 15 years stand out on your shelves? I am specifically interested in publications you currently possess that were first published after 2005. Tell me what you admire about some of them.

I love artist’s books, especially affordable ones. I stay away from the $500 books because I think it defeats the purpose of making accessible art. I love projects that are personal and complex.

I am sitting across from my bookcase and looking at the spines. One of my all-time heroes is Sophie Calle—I have almost all her books. Other recent photography books on my shelf include: Monica Haller’s Riley and his story; Karl Baden’s The Americans By Car; Martin Parr’s Autoportrait; and a recent purchase: A Study of Assassination by George Selley. In Instagram language, I would put triple hearts next to these books. I can add so many more.

I teach a seminar on the contemporary artist’s book at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University and the joke is that each time I show books I say, this is absolutely my favorite book. And I say that for so many books. It’s a great time to make books and collect them because design tools are more accessible, good printing is cheaper. There are too many good books out there.


Chantal Zakari is a Turkish-Levantine artist and a recent U.S. citizen. Her education since childhood was filled with propagandistic images designed to personify a sense of Turkish national identity. As an artist now living in the United States, she has a different perspective. Zakari was trained as a graphic designer and artist and received her MFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. She and Mike Mandel published The Turk & The Jew in 1998; the book is based on the web-narrative by the same title, which was launched in 1996. In 2005, using a pseudonym, she self-published webAffairs, a documentary of a web community.

Zakari has had solo shows of her work in the United States and in Turkey. Her books are included in the collection of the Brooklyn Museum of Art, Yale University, Institute of Network Cultures, Getty Research Institute, The Kinsey Institute Library, and many private collections. She has given book readings in the form of performances in the United Kingdom, Netherlands, Canada and the United States. Zakari is a full-time faculty member in the Text and Image Arts Area at The School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Drop Dead Gorgeous, 2020

Artist’s book, hardcover, 7×7 inches, 100 pages, indigo press

First printing edition of 100, publication date August 2020

Eighteen Publications, $35

For more information: https://www.thecorner.net/dropdeadgorgeous

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