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“American Dream”, Diego Yanez-Lagun
“American Dream”, Diego Yanez-Lagun

February 10, 2023March 5, 2023

MIT Keller Gallery
77 Mass Ave, 7-408,
Cambridge, MA

Pandemic Pondering, an exhibition of student work curated by Azra Aksamija, Director of the Art, Culture, and Technology Program at MIT, is on view at MIT’s Keller Gallery through March 5.

Through large-format images of COVID masks created by MIT students, the exhibit takes as its subject the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and its repercussions. The ongoing COVID-19 pandemic left a severe mark on the global economy and exacerbated social inequalities, shedding light on the many planetary urgencies that can no longer be ignored. This exhibition showcases artistic COVID masks created by MIT students in Azra Aksamija’s classes in 2021. Students were asked to design and fabricate masks functioning as cultural prostheses that commemorate personal and/or collective pandemic experiences. 

While the virus survives and mutates through human transmission, the mask hides our facial expressions and individuality, ultimately erasing our humanity. The masks featured in this show, however, re-inscribe that humanity with messages that are both critical and humorous. These masks reveal how to find strength, inspiration, and hope for the future in a moment in which weakness, cynicism, and despair seem so easy to surrender to. This exhibition celebrates the work of students who create art to expose the inequality of the world during the pandemic and amplify the voices of those who have been silenced.  

Visitor Information

  • MIT Keller Gallery, 77 Mass Ave, 7-408, Cambridge, MA
  • February 10 – March 5, 2023
  • Monday through Sunday, 9AM to 6PM

About the student projects

Seen, Caleb Amanfu, BSA ’21

This project explores the idea of being seen and not heard, referencing identity-based oppression that was exacerbated during the COVID pandemic. The mask form represents the feeling of being suffocated and silenced by systems of oppression. While the bandage material is chosen as a symbol of healing and help, this mask is preventing the possibility of speaking up while simultaneously suffocating the user under the problems they are trying to speak out against.

American Dream, Diego Yanez-Lagun, BSAD ’24

This mask shows how the immigrant experience in America is far from the American Dream that many migrants coming to America seek. The American Dream’s message of opportunity and welcome is represented by visual references to the Statue of Liberty. The corruption of these ideals is shown through the use of barbed wire which represents borders and division, and the ongoing mistreatment of migrants. The mask also resembles a crown of thorns which represents the hardships and loss of freedom migrants go through in pursuit of the American Dream.

We Can’t Breathe, Xio Alvarez, MArch 2021, MCP ’21

This project contemplates masks as objects of survival and care. The design brings together intersecting crises of violent racism and climate change, showing how they are manifesting themselves in 2021 in a variety of ways.

Resonant When Struck, Felix Li, BSAD ’23

This mask is constructed out of shattered porcelain pieces assembled from broken Chinese supermarket porcelain bowls and plates adorned with traditional motifs of dragons and flowers. While these bowls and plates are vessels of memories and care, their shattered and scattered form reflects the collective pain and grief experienced by the AAPI community following the increase in racism and violence during the pandemic. The shards come from a singular porcelain vessel, and it is together that they form one mask. Porcelain is formally characterized as ceramic that is “resonant when struck,” and this mask is a step toward that point.

Two Weeks of Covid Life, John Rao, BSA ’22

This mask takes the form of a garbage pile to highlight the amount of paper waste that an individual can produce over two weeks. The project contemplates how social isolation increased the consumption of home deliveries, burying us deeper into piles of waste. While we are enjoying the convenience of delivery services, the project aims to incite viewers to “listen” to the stories of these bags and boxes. Where did they come from? Who packed them? Who delivered them? Where do they go from here? 

Prosthetic Reminder, Michael J. Tan, BSA ’23

Using the pill as a symbol of both struggle and healing, this mask represents a mental health journey that many people suffered throughout the SARS-CoV-2 pandemic, intending to address stigmas surrounding mental health. This cultural prosthetic aims to empower those struggling with mental health concerns to communicate their needs while fostering a greater understanding and empathy toward those in need of support.

Smoking During the Pandemic, Terry Kang, BS Math&CompSc ’22

Inspired by the 1919 Popular Science mask for smoking, this project explores multiple layers of irony surrounding smoking during the COVID-19 pandemic through a lens of humor. This mask humorously represents the idea of forcefully needing to breathe through a cigarette to safely avoid the virus. The design can aid the user in potentially getting the vaccine: the mask made of cigarettes would easily incite the user to become a smoker, allowing them to qualify for a COVID vaccine early. In that sense, the mask made of cigarettes would provide me more protection from the virus than a standard medical mask.

Ocean Blues, Isabel Waitz, BSA ’23

This mask made by knitting together 10 single-use masks, represents the negative impacts that single-use protective gear has had on our world. Typically made of synthetic fibers, these iconic masks separate us by function but connect us through commonality. In addition, the mask now holds a much deeper meaning surrounding an individual’s political views. The politicization of a global healthcare crisis is personified in the decision to wear or not wear a mask. While impacting us on an interpersonal level, these blue single-use masks also affect our global environment.

Clean, Eva Smerekanych, BSAD/BS ’23

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, the National Eating Disorders Association received an increase in calls by 70-80%. One underlying reason why many people have been developing eating disorders during the pandemic is to feel a sense of control in an otherwise uncertain situation. This mask calls attention to one less-commonly known eating disorder, Orthorexia, a condition in which a person becomes obsessed with “clean eating” to an unhealthy degree. Each element reveals a different aspect of Orthorexia while shedding light on the suffering of nearly a tenth of the world’s population struggling with eating disorders today. 

Daniel Landez, BSA ’21

The flour tortilla is a carb-intensive food that developed out of the European and Amerindian cultural encounters during colonialism. Landez uses the flour tortilla to investigate the ontological hybridity of chicano/-a subjectivity and the physical effects that food traditions have on the body.