“Tender: Balance,” Jill Magid’s solo exhibition at The Renaissance Society, is spare in volume but not in feeling. The four works placed carefully throughout the vaulted former-cathedral space include a 28 minute video, an x-ray of the artist’s son, a borrowed bag of pennies, and a glow-in-the-dark museum display. The works are unmonumental, spread far apart from one another, as if designed for the limitations of the one-hour viewing period. However, this was not because Magid was constrained by the gallery’s COVID-19 protocol. Rather, the work takes the pandemic as its premise, albeit through a seemingly quaint and apolitical subject matter: pennies. Through four semi-documentary works, Magid inhabits the insidious tangle between human bodies and the economy.
Last Fall, with the help of Creative Time, Magid engraved the phrase “The Body Was Already So Fragile” into the sides of 120,000 2020 pennies which she then dispersed to bodegas across New York City. The video “Tender: Balance” dramatizes the production, packaging, engraving, distribution, and circulation of these pennies. Repeated focus on the engraving can be overkill at times, and risks rendering the film a mere promotional capsule for the Creative Time project. However, I have faith that even if this is where Magid started with the work, she soon goes to more interesting places in her pursuit.
Of all the video art made this past year, Magid’s is the only I’ve seen that is set unapologetically in the present. It’s New York City circa 2020, and people are masked. I thought this might feel like an unwelcome reminder, but it’s surprisingly comforting. It made me wish for a moment that all film and video productions made this past year had just introduced pandemics into their plotlines. Everyone who has experienced sudden anxiety simply from watching people sans-mask on screen could breathe a sigh of relief.
Unlike the other works in the exhibition, the film is not quiet. Projected on the backside of a wall that cuts one-third of the gallery into shadow, the film is flanked by two large speakers which send pounding reverberations through the floor. We start with the pennies: they pour out of conveyor belts in shots worthy of a youtube playlist. But once the pennies are bagged up and loaded onto trucks for distribution, they become analogous to the bodies carried by the morgue trucks that simultaneously course through the city. Magid plays with this confusion, cutting between the two in traffic scenes driven by a harried beat.
Magid often uses her art practice as an occasion to give us access to something we would otherwise not see. Knowing this, the appearance of the morgue truck is met with horror-movie-esq suspense. Is she going to take us inside? When the door finally opens, we watch the undertaker disappear behind a plastic curtain, and we don’t follow him.
This is one of several moments in the film that feel like slow motion. The other scenes are of choreographed touching, for which Magid cast a magician and several dancers. These are the primary moments of fantasy within the work. While the magician is comical, the dancers infuse the film with a stubborn sensuality—stubborn because their luxurious caresses are not of the moment.
A woman sifts through paletas in crinkly plastic wrappers, making sure to rest her palm on the smudgey freezer door before and after. Another inspects satsuma oranges, turning each one 360 degrees to pursue its porous skin. In one repeated scene, a woman clasps the door handle when exiting a bodega, twisting her palm along two-thirds of its surface. When a female cashier drops pennies into another woman’s hand, her manicured fingers graze the palm of her customer, like a subtle embrace or secret sex signal.
This is the part of Magid’s film that absorbs the pandemic like a sponge: exuding the need for public intimacy, a clandestine world of touch. Most of the women caressing things in these longer scenes are Black. I notice this because a friend’s voice enters my head, issuing an imagined critique: “This part is unrealistic,” she would say, “Black people wouldn’t just be touching things all willy nilly.” While my friend is a pre-pandemic germaphobe, and this statement is not statistically proven, it’s true that most Black women I saw grocery shopping during the high-pandemic days were wearing low-key hazmat suits. They knew the statistics and weren’t going to risk it.
I remember another friend telling me “When I go to Whole Foods now, it’s only me and other Black people.” We were talking about an interview I had just had for a nannying job, where my personal risk was being assessed. “I only go to the grocery store every 2-3 weeks,” I had said, thinking myself ultra-cautious. “Oh,” my prospective employer had replied, astonished, “We don’t go inside grocery stores.”
The people we see in “Tender: Balance” are precisely the people who aren’t building their safety on the backs of Instacart workers. In an opening talk for the show, Magid stated that the project began in response to the national coin shortage, a phenomenon you were only likely to know about if you weren’t holed up in a fortress ordering supplies on Amazon. I remember biking all over the city trying to find a bank that could give me quarters for laundry. When I finally did, I asked for $40 and the teller looked at me as if I was trying to stage a heist. “We’re only giving out one roll per person per week” she told me. But in “Tender: Balance,” everyone is paying in cash and receiving change, a plenitude of pennies constantly exchanging hands. Often people stop to gaze down curiously at their pennies, turning them slowly to reveal the inscription.
For some reason, everyone’s nails are impeccable, with the exception of one person who we see apply spray-on hand sanitizer in a clearly ineffective manner, their fragile white skin cracked and bleeding around the cuticles. Later, we see someone wringing a palm-full of liquid sanitizer through their grasp, dripping and glossy. Only once does Magid actually show us a dead body. This scene happens quickly, sandwiched between two scenes of sanitizing. An undertaker embalms a hand, holding it tenderly as it glistens with formaldehyde.
The film ends at a quickened pace, repeated scenes piling up to produce a codex of touch-terrors, cut to a heavy, frantic, rhythm. This gives the impression that something is about to happen. Despite the fact that the entire film has played out in an air of emergency, here comes the true moment of crisis. We see the driver of the morgue truck in full biohazard suit take a seat and start the ignition. We cut to the inside of a truck, as if this time, we will finally see its contents—we will finally face the pandemic head on. But instead we see the ballistic bags, dimly lit, bulging, looking forsaken and pitifully humanoid. I suppress a cynical thought: Is this the cost of a human life in America, $4,000 in pennies?
Over the last year, I’ve had many conversations about death in America with a friend from elsewhere. Not just about the pandemic, but about the young Black and brown people murdered by police, and the almost-daily mass shootings that have picked up steam again now that the country anticipates a return to ‘normal.’ “Life is cheap in America,” he always concludes. I want to argue with him, but I can’t. In America, life can be unbearably expensive for the one living it, with child and elder care, housing, basic nutrition, and education largely unsubsidised. With starkly unlivable wages that the majority of people live on anyway. But life is cheap for the taker.
Back home, my mother tells me that one of her coworker’s sons has shot the other over a $20 bill. I remember that a student at my high school stabbed another over less. This is one effect of poverty, that one person’s life costs the same as another’s lunch. This March, a historic settlement was paid to the family of George Floyd, but even $27 million is not enough. While these settlements will never make up for the lives taken, the logic of pursuing them is to make taking a life more and more expensive, in the hopes that at some point, fear of high payout will pressure police officers to stop murdering people.
This is the logic of America: in order to give life value within larger systems of power and governance, we have to affix each life with a literal price tag. This is because, as Magid notices from her news consumption, our newscaster can always shift focus to the economy when the death count gets too high.
“Tender: Balance” is economical in a different way. On the reverse side of the video projection is a work titled “In Circulation,” an x-ray of the artist’s son, rushed to the ER after accidentally swallowing one of Magid’s engraved pennies. A glowing disk hovers above his heart. Across the room lies a ballistic bag of pennies on a metal skid, on loan from the U.S. Mint: the remaining pennies Magid did not engrave. The bag is on par with the human body, the skid strangely resembling a child’s crib. This readymade is lit by a single fluorescent panel in the ceiling. The remaining lights are off, a move which makes the entire exhibition appear subtly post-apocalyptic.
The fourth work is relatively distant from the other three, and marks the beginning of a separate but related project the artist is still working on. It’s a small inset vitrine displaying 12 glass casts of pennies. One penny is held by a brass mount, while the other 11 lay scattered at its base glowing like stars on black velvet. These are speculative replicas of 12 glass prototypes made by the US government in 1942 when copper was diverted for wartime weapons production. Eight of the pennies glow with uranium, which was proposed as an anti-counterfeit measure but never utilized, perhaps because it too was needed for bombs.
At the onset of the pandemic, as a way to demonstrate to voters that they were taking things seriously, both Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden compared the pandemic to war. At the time, this irked me. And yet, by resurfacing these speculative wartime pennies, perhaps Magid is doing the same. If we’re going to compare the pandemic to war, we have to make clear that it is not a war between nations. It’s a civil war, waged between people and the governments that refuse to protect them. It’s a battle over the value of human life, adjusted by race, age, income level, English mastery, and ability. Before the pandemic, too many Black mothers died or lost their children in childbirth, too many Indigenous women went missing, too many impoverished people of all sorts died of neglect: of hunger, gun violence, police brutality, opioid addiction, and lack of medical care. During the pandemic, these atrocities continued. The after hasn’t happened yet.
“Tender: Balance” suggests that the primary struggle of this “after” in America will be demanding that human life has value. Particularly, the lives that have hitherto been made cheap. At the 2012 Creative Time summit, titled “Confronting Inequity,” curator Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev quipped that when we focus on inequity, we are further trapping ourselves within the problem of capitalism by seeking solutions to injustice and pain only through the lens of the economy. I agree with her, but I think we can have that talk after reparations. “What do you think,” I ask my friend, “is $4,000 the cost of a life in America?” “No,” he snorts, “I think it’s much less.”