Portrait of a pandemic: five works at Art Basel that confront Covid-19

The first edition of Art Basel to take place since the onset of the global pandemic is full of new works created in the midst of lockdown


At Art Basel this year, a selection of works explores some of the ways artists sought to understand and communicate the profound consequences of Covid-19 on our physical selves, mental wellbeing, family ties and communities near and far.

Detail of Hayv Kahraman, Chameleons (2021); Jack Shainman Gallery Courtesy of the artist and Jack Shainman Gallery

Hayv Kahraman, Chameleons (2021). (Detail.)

Jack Shainman

The Baghdad-born, Los Angeles-based artist Hayv Kahraman’s oil-on-linen painting was created as her mother went through cancer on a different continent during lockdown. After learning about the threat of Covid-19, Kahraman began researching the symbols associated with immunology. Chameleons depicts interlocking female bodies echoing the antibody symbol of a ‘Y’ in a style influenced by Persian miniature painting. “Hayv’s family escaped Iraq during the first Gulf war and a lot of her work reflects on the psychological trauma of war. This painting explores the way we tend to link war and illness,” says Elisabeth Sann, the director of Jack Shainman Gallery. “It speaks to how your body works with you and works against you during illness.” Jack Shainman Gallery sold the painting for $70,000 on the first VIP day at Art Basel.

Mario García Torres, It Must Have Been a Tuesday (2020); Jan Mot, Galleria Franco Noero, neugerriemschneider, Taka Ishii Gallery Photo: Kabir Jhala

Mario García Torres, It Must Have Been a Tuesday (2020)

Jan Mot, Galleria Franco Noero, neugerriemschneider, Taka Ishii Gallery

The Mexican artist tracked the passing of lockdown by affixing to his studio door a photocopied sheet featuring the words “cerrado temporalmente” (temporarily closed). He photocopied the latest sheet every day—producing 164 in total—until the studio reopened. The result is on show at Art Basel’s Unlimited section, priced at $100,000-$200,000. “As I started to question many concepts and ideas I previously had through the pandemic, the text I had written began to mutate as well,” García Torres says.

Hugo McCloud, the burden of man: waiting to breathe (2021);  Sean Kelly, Vielmetter Courtesy of the artist, Sean Kelly Gallery and Vielmetter

Hugo McCloud, the burden of man: waiting to breathe (2021) 

Sean Kelly, Vielmetter

A row of oxygen tanks depicted in Mexico-based Hugo McCloud’s painting, priced at $450,000 in Unlimited, is a grim reminder of shortages in countries such as India at the height of the pandemic, which contributed to the deaths of thousands. The tanks are set against a backdrop of migration paths, alluding to the unfinished border wall between Mexico and the US. The work “is directly responding to the pandemic and other current issues happening simultaneously such as migration; the oxygen tanks are relating to the shortages in many impoverished areas,” McCloud says.

Nadav Kander,  The Pause (2020); Howard Greenberg Courtesy of the artist and Howard Greenberg Gallery

Nadav Kander, The Pause (2020)

Howard Greenberg

Photographs from Nadav Kander’s new series situate the quaint figurines Kander played with as a child, and rediscovered during lockdown, against barren landscapes invented in his London studio. The pandemic “showed us how out of balance we are with nature, how we cannot continue with the habits we formed”, Kander says. Yet while his images seem full of anxiety, they were partly inspired by the connections he sought during lockdown, standing in socially distanced queues or speaking to friends on their driveways and front gardens. The works sold for $9,000 each at Art Basel.

Gillian Wearing, Wearing Mask (2021); Maureen Paley © Gillian Wearing, courtesy Maureen Paley

Gillian Wearing, Wearing Mask (2021)

Maureen Paley

London’s Maureen Paley gallery is showing Gillian Wearing’s bronze cast of her own face shaped like the masks that have become essential in the pandemic, as well as watercolour “lockdown self-portraits” of the artist sat alone and listless on her sofa. “This work has grown out of this moment in time,” Paley says. “These works respond in a very specific way to this shared experience.” Editions of the mask sold to two private collections for £18,000 each on the first morning of Art Basel. Paley also sold a self-portrait for £38,000.


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