The pandemic has made illness and isolation a constant in our society. It also produced an enormous amount of grief. In the United States alone, people are mourning the nearly one million lives lost to the coronavirus. How do we make sense of our losses as we experience them? How to move forward and look back at the same time? Our leaders offered few spaces or moments for reflection, so artists, as they often do, stepped in to fill the void. Four projects currently on view in New York take up the work of memorials and monuments: They give us a place to put our grief, a place to store it so it doesn’t just reside in our bodies and minds.
In 2020, for a project called “Tender,” artist Jill Magid had 120,000 cents — the sum of a federal stimulus check — engraved with the words “The body was already so fragile.” Magid brought the coins into circulation by spending them and sometimes donating them to bodegas around New York. The idea was to make people think about the connections between economic and social conditions: the coins spread through human interaction, like the virus, and “the body” could refer to the physical coins or to an already vulnerable body politic. Magid documented the process, which took place during the lockdown, and created a short film that anchors her new installation, “Tender Presence,” produced by public art organization Creative Time.
The first thing you see when you enter the grand former Dime Savings Bank in Williamsburgh are rows of bouquets in green buckets, as if they were still on sale in the bodegas where they were purchased. The display is a poignant riff on the custom of using flowers to mourn the dead, even more charged with the knowledge that the flowers are already dying. Behind them is a large screen; depending on when you attend, you can sit and watch Magid’s 29-minute film with musicians playing around you.
The live score – composed by T. Griffin, with sound design by Eric Sluyter – is haunting, sometimes jarring and often tense, as if accompanying a thriller. During one section, a musician slams down a repetitive, pulsing rhythm, punctuated with regular puffs on a flute. The screen shows a tattoo artist at work, followed by a machine carving pennies from Magid – creative marks on different body types. The beat gives way to wavering, buzzing strings after a shot of an empty stretcher inside a makeshift morgue.
“Tender Presence” is thought-provoking and at times engrossing, but it suffers from being part about Magid’s work and part about the pandemic itself. She connects the two conceptually with images of hands, many using cash to pay for bodega purchases, but the premise of tracking her custom pieces distracts from commentary on how the United States values the economy. in relation to human life. The anonymity and invisibility of the circulation of pennies is what makes it fascinating.
Magid calls “Tender” a “scattered monument”; arguably Rafael Lozano-Hemmer’s Covid-19 project is too, although his preferred term is “anti-monument”. Called “A Crack in the Hourglass,” it also began in 2020, when Lozano-Hemmer and his assistants built a special sand tracker with a robotic arm and an AI image processor. As participants submit photographs of people who have died from the coronavirus via a dedicated website, the machine draws them in the sand, which flows from a partial hourglass chamber. When the portrait is finished, the plotter scatters it and recycles the sand. Watching this moment of dissolution is particularly moving.
The Brooklyn Museum is currently hosting the first physical presentation of an “A Crack in the Hourglass”. Filling a single gallery, the exhibit consists of the machine, time-lapse archival videos of the portraits in progress, benches, and grayscale prints of the completed drawings. Despite the plotter’s sophistication, the facility looks deliberately simple, designed to accommodate everyone. And its physicality gives the project new life after two years so intensely virtual; seeing tiled pieces of paper on the wall made the losses they represented seem more real. As one Covid mourner told Ed Yong for a recent piece in The Atlantic: “Putting my grief into a physical thing would take away some of the emotional heaviness.”
It was part of the momentum of the ZIP Code Memory Project, which examines the impact of the pandemic on hard-hit neighborhoods in Harlem, Washington Heights and the South Bronx. Sponsored by Columbia University’s Center for the Study of Social Difference, the sprawling project includes workshops, public events and an exhibit at St. John the Divine Cathedral. Titled “Imagine Repair” and curated by Isin Onol, the exhibition features creations by workshop participants and artists, most of whom live or work in the affected postcodes.
The pieces mostly document on-the-ground experiences of Covid-19. Some of the strongest contributions are the photographs, enhanced by their integration into the architecture of the space. For example, “Let Your Heart Be Not Troubled” by Kamal Badhey (2020–22), a poetic assemblage of words and images about moving in with one’s parents during the pandemic, is laid out on disused benches and laps. Susan Meiselas’ diptych of the doors of her local butcher shop – whose owner died of coronavirus – hangs against towering chapel doors.
Not all work is of the same caliber, but the show excels at sparking specialness and intimacy, such as with the “Depository of Anonymous Feelings” (2022), a hotline New Yorkers can call to share stories and feelings about the pandemic, created by Chelsea Knight with Candace Leslie, Sandra Long and Zahied Tony Mohammed. Like “A Crack in the Hourglass,” which is represented in the exhibit by videos, “Imagine Repair” breaks down overwhelming statistics into individual stories, while emphasizing that downtown residents, many of whom are people of color, have been disproportionately affected. by the pandemic and must be heard and honored.
For me, the show’s counterpart is downtown at the Whitney Biennale. Coco Fusco’s 12-minute video “Your Eyes Will Be an Empty Word” (2021) captures the artist rowing a boat around Hart Island, New York’s public cemetery for the unclaimed dead. Where many Covid projects have attempted to pierce the anonymity of numbers with participation and specificity, Fusco has given itself a more difficult task: to commemorate those whose stories we do not know. People like artist Melinda Hunt have been exploring this as it relates to Hart Island for decades, but Fusco brings the subject up to date with dazzling drone imagery and thoughtful text, voiced by poet Pamela Sneed. “The loss of life becomes a manageable sum,” she said. “We can treat it like a debt that could be canceled one day. Forgiven and forgotten, we will leave.
All of these artists, and many more, are doing their best so that we don’t.
Jill Magid: tender presence
Until May 8. Dime Savings Bank of Williamsburgh, 209 Havemeyer Street, Brooklyn; creativetime.org.
The Postcode Memory Project: Imagine Repair
Until May 15. Cathedral of St. John the Divine, 1047 Amsterdam Avenue, Manhattan; zcmp.org.
Rafael Lozano-Hemmer: A Crack in the Hourglass
Until June 26. Brooklyn Museum, 200 Eastern Parkway, Brooklyn; (718) 638-5000; brooklynmuseum.org.
The Whitney Biennale 2022: quiet as it is guarded
Until September 5. Whitney Museum, 99 Gansevoort Street, Manhattan; (212) 570-3600; whitney.org.