Out of Many, One
Twenty-twenty has been a year full of trials and tribulations. Jill Magid’s latest work Tender
launches nuanced inquiry and reflections that could only be born out of this moment that we find
ourselves in. In her new work, 120,000 2020 pennies, the monetary equivalent of a stimulus
check, serve as a vehicle through which to explore human vulnerability and the wide-reaching
effects of the Coronavirus on both a personal and national scale.
In the case of most global tragedies, we are bombarded with images that aim to quantify and
drive home the toll. With the COVID-19 pandemic, images are pointedly missing. Statistics do not
seem to imprint on the public consciousness the same way in which visually documented
suffering does. Delivered through words, we have learned about the widespread devastation
this virus has caused, be it printed on newsprint, read by anchormen, or from the mouths of our
political leaders. Through these words it is often the economic toll of the virus that takes the
forefront. Magid explores these dynamics through the phrase, “the body was already so fragile.”
Taken from a text addressing the precarity of the United States economy in the early days of
quarantine, without context we are left to question which body is in fact being referred to. The
human body? The economic? The body politic?
This text is incised into the edges around each penny—serving as a scar and an enduring
reminder of the toll of COVID-19. Serving as a stand-in for the human body, the metaphor is
furthered by the cash-in-transit trucks used to deliver the pennies, formally reflecting the
refrigerated trucks that sprang up around over-capacity hospitals during the height of the
pandemic. At the same time, the copper comprising the penny is antimicrobial. On copper
surfaces, such as these newly minted pennies, norovirus, MRSA, virulent strains of E. coli, and
coronaviruses all die.
Tender challenges the boundaries of public art. In this continued time of social distancing as an
act of care, Tender explores what it means to create a record of the present-day that will
circulate for years to come. Magid explores intimacy and reflects upon contemporary
interpersonal exchange. For most of 2020 the public has been in isolation, with all
communication mediated by the phone or internet. Tender relies on direct in-person interaction
as the artist travels to bodegas throughout the five boroughs in order to place the coins into
circulation. Iconic and ubiquitous to New York City, local bodegas remained open during the
course of the pandemic as essential businesses, directly serving their communities. Through
these businesses, Tender Pennies are placed in the hands of the public, relying on individuals
to continue and drive distribution. Magid trusts her audience and implicates them in her work as
either witting or unwitting vehicles for dissemination.
Currency, in essence, is a nationally circulated and sanctioned public art work. The penny is
inscribed with a portrait of President Abraham Lincoln created by sculptor Victor D. Brenner,
and has been on the penny since 1909. The newer Union Shield addition by metal artist
Josheph Menna and designer Lyndall Bass was added in 2010. This is a participatory work of
art that expands across the nation and the globe. Sandwiched between the two faces of the
coin, the edge serves as a liminal non-space, often ignored, but ripe for intervention.
The Union Shield bears the US Motto, “out of many, one.” A fitting phrase for Tender itself, as
holistically, the work serves as a single defuse memorial. The 120,000 coins making up the
Creative Time project amount to $1200, echoing the $1200 stimulus relief checks that were
issued by the U.S. Treasury as part of The CARES Act, which provided some measure of
financial relief to individual citizens during the Coronavirus pandemic. The coins are individually
dispersed—using New York City as their origin—echoing the widespread proliferation of the
virus throughout the city and its position as a viral epicenter.
Coincidently, pennies are symbols of good luck, of optimism. In wishing wells and fountains we
toss pennies as a means to make our hopes manifest. Even as we confront the stream of
challenges facing us today, Tender speaks to momentum and a promise for the future: that we
will memorialize this moment, learn from our actions, and move forward.
– Justine Ludwig
New York City