She inscribed 120,000 NYC pennies with a pandemic message. Is one in your pocket?
When artist Jill Magid was asked to do a public art work for the non-profit Creative Time in 2020, she had to take a step back.
"It's very hard to make a public art piece when there's no public and there's a pandemic," she said.
But then she read a New Yorker article, where the co-chief investment officer at the bond fund PIMCO, Mohamed El-Erian, said this about the pandemic economy:
"This is much bigger than 2008. 2008 was a massive heart attack that happened suddenly to the financial markets. You could identify the problem and apply emergency remedies and revive the patient quickly. This is not just a financial stop. This is infection all over the body, damage to virtually every limb and organ. The body was already so fragile. Those of us who have had the privilege of studying failed states have seen this before, but never in a big country like the United States, let alone a global economy."
The body was already so fragile. Those were the words that stuck in Magid's head.
Her project, called Tender, took shape. She had 120,000 pennies inscribed with that phrase, and distributed them through New York City's bodegas, locally-owned convenience stories which were considered essential businesses when the city was shut down in the early stages of the pandemic. She also made a short film with a provocative set of images, juxtaposing Brink's trucks filled with pennies with rows of refrigerated trucks filled with bodies. It's saying the economy is sick; our bodies are sick, too.
"I was thinking of the human body, but also the government body, financial bodies and our own fragility," Magid said.
Many of the film's close-ups are of hands as the coins pass from clerk to customer. It is both frightening and intimate, reminding us that pennies circulate through our economy like the virus circulates - through contact.
Justine Ludwig, executive director of Creative Time, said it's those images that most resonate for her. "For myself and for so many, something that was so challenging during the pandemic was the utter lack of intimacy that as humans we need," she said. "And so seeing a pandemic moment and those hands touching one another, exchanging currency over and over, really hit home for me."
This weekend is the second - and final - time audiences can view the film. It's showing at Dime Savings Bank in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, a neo-Classical building that was once a cathedral of capitalism and is now all peeling paint and hollow, echoing spaces. At set times, eight musicians play the score to the otherwise mostly-silent film, their droning music recalling both the horror of that time and the meditative quality of religion, of reflection. It was important to Magid that there be a place, a time, for people to reflect on all that's happened over the past two years, especially in the place that was originally the virus's epicenter.
"You feel the music, you see the musicians, you feel the subwoofer is like resonating in your body. And all of us together create a whole other kind of moment that that you can't really put into words, nor could you get online or any other way," she said.
Tender Presence is running through May 8 in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
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