Mike Mandel and Chantal Zakari, Postcards on a Rack (detail), 2011, ninety-six 4 x 6“ found postcards, metal rack, 72 x 24 x 24”.

Mike Mandel and Chantal Zakari, Postcards on a Rack (detail), 2011, ninety-six 4 x 6“ found postcards, metal rack, 72 x 24 x 24”.

Mike Mandel and Chantal Zakari


Mike Mandel and Chantal Zakari, Postcards on a Rack (detail), 2011, ninety-six 4 x 6“ found postcards, metal rack, 72 x 24 x 24”.

Between 1997 and 2010, the collaborative duo Mike Mandel and Chantal Zakari crisscrossed their way through Turkey in search of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk, the writer, revolutionary statesman, military officer, and founder of the Republic of Turkey, who died in 1938. Or rather, the artists (who identify themselves as American and Turkish-Levantine, respectively) sought to capture the symbolic power of his image, which continues to resonate for divergent sectors of the country. With a provocative title suggesting the multiplicity that haunts every proper name, “7 Turkish Artists: Mike Mandel and Chantal Zakari” made visible the paradoxical potency of Atatürk’s multivalent likeness in a society in which the voices of secularists, Islamists, nationalists, fascists, and the military all vie to be heard.

To draw out the connection between the former president’s omnipresence in the public sphere and his embodiment of often opposing agendas, values, and beliefs, Mandel and Zakari took up various visual strategies and techniques. For example, Atatürk’s image looms large in documentary-style black-and-white photographs of city streets, cheesy realist paintings (hackwork outsourced to commercial studios in China) of empty office interiors and women donning head­scarves, video montages of military parades and pageants celebrating national holidays, postcards (from the 1950s to the present) bearing Atatürk’s visage, translucent resin busts, and a golden death mask. In this constellation of ready-made objects, fabricated artworks, and channels of mediation—and the slippages between them—the artists point to the malleability of the Atatürk icon. Despite its historical connection to the abolition of the sultanate and establishment of the secular state in 1923, the patriarch’s countenance operates like a screen that accommodates and propagates numerous ideological projections.

The artists thankfully avoided the pitfalls of a didactic show-and-tell by animating this living archive with their own interventions into the Atatürk myth. The most forceful of these occurred in Ankara in 1997: As Islamists challenged the government’s educational policies, Zakari stepped into the street holding a framed portrait of Atatürk while Mandel snapped a sequence of six photos (appearing here as The Ankara Media Spectacle, 2011). The attendant display of Turkish newspapers and their shrill headlines—“Here Is the Courageous Girl,” “Her Plan to Divide the Country,” and “The ‘Chantal Plan’ Backfired”—represents only a glimpse of the ensuing media spectacle, yet effectively reveals how political acts have become inseparable from the images that give them form and through which they are disseminated.

To examine how this liaison permeates all levels of everyday life, Mandel and Zakari temporarily affixed a portrait of Atatürk to the wall of every hotel room in which they stayed. “The Hotel Project,” 1997–2007, a photographic documentation of these interiors, is accompanied by a text that proposes three scenarios that their action could effect: (1) an immediate removal of the photograph by the hotel staff; (2) an “emotional conflict” that prevents the staff from disposing of the image, which, in turn, leads to the room being granted special status; (3) the seamless integration into the existing decor of the image, which, due to its general ubiquity, went unnoticed. Resonating with Lawrence Weiner’s Declaration of Intent, 1969, this project emphasizes Atatürk’s plural condition as an adaptive visual, material, and discursive representation whose particular instantiation depends on its site and sphere of reception. Just as the artists cannot know the full ramifications of their own actions, neither can the long-term symbolic economy of Atatürk’s image be foreseen; indeed it remains in a state of permanent potentiality for future acts of speech.

Recently, Mandel and Zakari started recording the proliferation of George Washington iconography across Boston, interviewing a cross section of the populace about his contemporary meaning and publishing their preliminary “findings” in the local newspaper. With the flood of images manufactured to shape public opinion in the current US presidential campaigns, one wonders whether a concerted deployment of America’s founding father will make certain enunciations possible and render others outside the limits of speech.

Nuit Banai