Animating Life During Lockdown

POSTED ON: August 3, 2023


Installation view of 2 Lizards by Meriem Bennani and Orian Barki (Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, September 30, 2022–February, 2023). Photograph by Ron Amstutz 

Stills from Meriem Bennani and Orian Barki, 2 Lizards. 2020. Courtesy of the artists.

Stills from Meriem Bennani and Orian Barki, 2 Lizards, 2020. Courtesy of the artists.

Stills from Meriem Bennani and Orian Barki, 2 Lizards. 2020. Courtesy of the artists.

Stills from Meriem Bennani and Orian Barki, 2 Lizards, 2020. Courtesy of the artists.


Installation image of Windy courtesy of the artist, High Line and Audemars Piguet. 

2 Lizards opens with its titular reptile duo conversing about the pandemic on a Brooklyn rooftop. “I mean, to be honest, I’m kind of into this confinement thing because I feel like I’ve been fantasizing about not having any plans and just having to stay home and do things I never have time to do,” one lizard says. “That’s such a quarantine week-one thing to say,” replies the other. Meanwhile, an impromptu jazz score builds as various species of animal musicians perform “It Never Entered My Mind” from different corners of the cityscape.

“Beautiful moment of communion through sound waves in Brooklyn despite social distancing,” wrote artist Meriem Bennani A’12 when she posted the video to Instagram in March of 2020, shortly after New York City went into lockdown. Conceived by Bennani and filmmaker Orian Barki as an episodic series, 2 Lizards depicts the early months of the pandemic as it unfolded. The resulting eight videos were recently exhibited by the Whitney Museum of American Art in the project’s first-ever museum presentation as a narrative film.

Bennani and Barki’s work offers a surrealist diary of the period spanning March 17 to July 5, 2020.  Superimposing 3-D animation on iPhone videos and footage of global events, the series follows its lizard protagonists as they witness their city transformed by public health anxieties, social isolation, and cries for social justice following the murder of George Floyd. 

Artist portrait by Farah Al Qasimi, 2022. © Courtesy of the artist, the High Line and Audemars Piguet 

“We decided to go for moods,” Bennani explained in a New York Times interview at the time. “There was so much factual information from the news that it’s our way of abstracting it into a feeling that can fuel story.” She and Barki provide the voices for the two lizards, narrating familiar scenes and conversations that distill the emotional complexity of everyday routines upended by new social realities, both mundane and devastating—surging death tolls, Zoom parties, quarantine lethargy, the 7 pm cheer for essential workers. 

Bennani and Barki’s film has since been celebrated for capturing life in the city at the height of the pandemic with a mix of absurdist humor and social commentary. After going viral on social media, 2 Lizards was acquired by both the Whitney and the Museum of Modern Art in 2021 before its exhibition run in the Whitney’s free lobby gallery from September 2022 through February 2023. The film’s museum debut coincided with another acclaimed New York City exhibition by Bennani, who was born in Morocco and earned her M.F.A. from the École nationale supérieure des Arts Décoratifs after graduating from Cooper. Windy (2022), co-commissioned by High Line Art and Audemars Piguet Contemporary, is the artist’s first public sculpture, located on the High Line at 24th Street. The work, which was on view this spring, is a spinning sculpture in the shape of a tornado made from black foam, entreating the public to walk around it, viewing from a distance as its dynamism makes the details almost impossible to grasp. 

While Bennani’s practice has been primarily focused on moving images, the commission suggests a new, more abstract direction for her interest in motion and animation, one that poses questions about the post-lockdown experience of public space. Most notably, Windy engages with the return to life of a crowded New York City park, a sharp contrast with the slow pace of isolation she and Barki explored in 2 Lizards.

“Developing Windy has expanded my understanding of sculpture and allowed me to take on new conceptual and technical challenges in my work,” the Cooper alumna says. “I hope that visitors will have a visceral, emotional reaction when they experience the piece and be swept away by its chaotic energy, echoing the energy of New York City and the High Line.”

View 2 Lizards in its original eight-part video format through Meriem Bennani’s Instagram: @meriembennani.

  • Founded by inventor, industrialist and philanthropist Peter Cooper in 1859, The Cooper Union for the Advancement of Science and Art offers education in art, architecture and engineering, as well as courses in the humanities and social sciences.

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