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Artists at Art Basel reflect the times

Art Basel's first curator-led virtual fair features many strong works that express the zeitgeist.

In the Art Basel Online Viewing Rooms (OVR) running from now till June 19, there is a sculpture by American artist Vanessa German. It consists of a headless female figure bearing the load of a tall bouquet of flowers. The work is colourful and whimsical, but a lit sign attached to the bouquet reads: “HEAVY”.

For curator Larry Ossei-Mensah, German’s sculpture “encapsulates a lot of how I felt last year”, impacted by both the pandemic and Black Lives Matter. “It’s an assemblage, but it also functions as easily as an altarpiece. Vanessa is trying to create something that’s visually pleasing, but it also invites the viewer to investigate beyond (its appearance).”

Art Basel

Left: Vanessa German’s sculpture made partly out of found objects carries multiple meanings, including the suggestion of a “heaviness” that weighs on our psyche despite efforts to stay bright and optimistic. Right: Osias Yanov’s sculpture, inspired by the game Snakes & Ladders, hints at the “two steps forward, one step back” process of tackling the pandemic.

The work showcased in New York-based gallery Kasmin is one of hundreds on display virtually in the Art Basel OVR: Portals. Forced to migrate online because of global travel restrictions, the premier art fair is holding its first curator-led virtual exhibition featuring 94 top galleries from around the world, including David Zwirner, Victoria Miro, White Cube and Singapore’s own STPI.

The curators involved in choosing the submissions are the aforementioned Ossei-Mensah, Christina Li and Magali Arriola, each with different regional expertise.

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A lot of works – especially those created during the pandemic – point to the sense of confusion and despair brought about by the global pandemic.

Swiss artist Louisa Gagliardi painted a scene of a group of people sitting around a table under a harsh fluorescent light. But they are partly enveloped by a fog, making their bodies appear translucent and ghostly. As communities around the world practise social distancing and mourn the loss of loved ones, Gagliardi’s forlorn painting feels especially germane to the moment.

American photographer Catherine Opie produced a series of blurry landscape photographs as a reflection of her own ennui. Osias Yanov’s sculpture, inspired by the game Snakes & Ladders, hints at the “two steps forward, one step back” process of tackling the pandemic.

Ossei-Mensah says: “We (the curators) were not necessarily trying to give answers. Instead we wanted to offer points of reflection and opportunities to expand perspectives.”

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Even artworks that were created prior to the pandemic were selected based on their relevance to the current zeitgeist. Chinese artist Lu Yang created a video work in 2018 whose exploration of AR, VR and intelligent life feels especially relevant today as more people use technology as interfaces for human interaction.

Noah Horowitz, Director Americas for Art Basel, says: “There’s just an extraordinary amount of ambition coming through this. Galleries are increasingly using a digital sphere to introduce new artists to the market in a way that historically they might not have – or they might have preferred to contextualise that work in a physical setting instead.”

This article was originally published in The Business Times.

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