Tender: Balance, The Renaissance Society, Chicago

In each of her in-depth projects, Jill Magid’s work takes shape as she becomes intimately involved with different structures of authority, whether government bureaucracies, a secret service agency, or the guardians of other artists’ estates. Gaining access through systemic loopholes or contact with people on the inside, she closely follows the prescribed rules of engagement with each institution. In a way, she becomes a stand-in for any person trying to navigate something much larger than themselves.

As the COVID-19 pandemic began, the interactions between individuals and larger systems quickly came into starker relief. Magid was especially struck by the pervasive language in which the loss of human life has been weighed against the costs for the economy. In response, she began developing Tender, “a monumental but nearly-invisible public artwork”—initiated and produced with Creative Time in New York— that circulates among us, and an exhibition at the Renaissance Society that gives expression to the project in a different way, concentrated in one location. Beginning in the summer of 2020, Magid acquired 400,000 newly minted pennies, the volume of a standard ballistic bag used to transport coins in bulk. On 120,000 of these pennies (equal to the $1200 stimulus checks sent out by the U.S. Treasury as part of The CARES Act), she engraved the flat edge with a single phrase: THE BODY WAS ALREADY SO FRAGILE. These words evoke both the human body and the body politic, at a time of profound collective stress; they also echo descriptions of the economy as a kind of body itself, a system with its own measures of health and vulnerability. Magid then released the engraved pennies back into circulation through transactions at bodegas throughout the five boroughs of New York. As the coins are used and exchanged over time—with an expected forty years in circulation—Tender spreads from there, becoming a dispersed, ongoing memorial for all the lives lost to the pandemic, while also tracing the flows of currency within the economy.

Magid’s multi-year projects gradually expand and become translated into many different forms. In addition to her public or private interventions, this often includes films, sculptures, installations, photographs, and publications. The initial manifestation of Tender, unfolding in New York, is an expansive public artwork that can only be experienced in intimate and unscripted ways, one penny at a time—or more likely, simply as a rumor. At the Renaissance Society, in contrast, Magid presents a new film and an installation of other new image-and object-based works. Here, Tender comes to rest, but only momentarily, and as part of an ongoing project that can never be seen all at once. While the works in the exhibition may reveal aspects of the artist’s production process and capture moments of exchange, they are less a document of the public artwork than an expanding meditation on the project’s various conceptual threads, with its shades of vulnerability, value, and interconnection.