Mexico City

Jill Magid, Tender Balance, 2021, HD video, color, sound, 28 minutes.

Jill Magid, Tender Balance, 2021, HD video, color, sound, 28 minutes.

Jill Magid

Jill Magid’s show at Labor was also the fourth iteration of her traveling exhibition “Tender,” which was previously presented in Chicago, Fort Worth, and New York, or maybe the fifth, if you count the book version. In line with Magid’s heavily process-based practice, “Tender” started out as a work of the same name from 2020: a pandemic endeavor in which Magid purchased 400,000 uncirculated pennies from the US Mint and inscribed the edges of 120,000 of them with the sentence THE BODY WAS ALREADY SO FRAGILE. The total dollar amount of $1,200 referred to the sum that Americans received as a first (and at the time only) stimulus, so-called relief from the financial repercussions of the pandemic.

Magid then went on to make Tender Balance, 2021, a twenty-eight-minute video whose first part, “The Body,” intersperses images of the US Mint and the manufacture and distribution of copper pennies with dread-filled scenes of the makeshift refrigerated-trailer morgues that proliferated in New York during the worst days of the pandemic. The second part, “The Body Was Already Fragile,” shows daily life in the city at that time, focusing on people exchanging coins for groceries at the bodegas that remained open. The film presents very tight close-ups of cashiers giving change and customers rummaging through coin purses and scratching lotto tickets. Near the end, a pristinely manicured hand makes a payment with a roll of engraved pennies from the original Tender project. A box of fifty pennies, Tender (Box), 2020, was displayed inside a glass vitrine just a few feet from the projection.

Despite the haunting poignance of the film’s pulsating soundtrack by T. Griffin, Tender Balance fails to rouse much empathy. The tone is off. With its visual insistence on trucks, coins, and hands, and the consequent absence of voices or faces, the film feels emotionally stunted and cold. It does little more than point to capital’s (obvious) reliance on exploited human bodies. This critique is important, but also self-evident to most workers, and in this instance not particularly nuanced. Magid’s usual skill at articulating critiques of bureaucracy in a captivating way seems to have fallen short this time.

And this offering does feel out of character for Magid, who caused a huge ruckus in the Mexican art scene in 2016 with The Barragán Archives, a long-term project that led her to convince the family of Luis Barragán, the venerated architect, to disinter his mortal remains and turn them into a diamond in an elaborate scheme to return his archive to his home country from Switzerland. In “Tender,” with its much duller critique of the inherent relation between capital creation and the expendability of human bodies, Magid’s knack for observing the extravagances, absurdities, and cruelties of private and state bureaucracy is lost in a Covid-19 landscape of limited imagery. The originating gesture of poetically addressing the lowly penny still holds some of the whimsy and charm typical of the artist's oeuvre, but its criticism lacks teeth and its humanism is short on emotion. Perhaps that lapse is a consequence of obstinately thinking about bodies, as opposed to people, even during the wreckage of a pandemic.