Meriem Bennani and Orian Barki, still from 2 Lizards (2020). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. © Meriem Bennani and Orian Barki.
When you’re at the Whitney Museum of American Art between now and February, make sure to follow the lizard footprints on the floor—they will guide you towards the museum’s free-of-charge lobby gallery. Inside, you will meet the two humanoid reptile protagonists of 2 Lizards (2020), an eight-part video series created by artist Meriem Bennani and documentary filmmaker Orian Barki. The film follows oh-so-familiar rituals—Zoom parties, breaking news announcements, viral sex encounters and rooftop concerts—that fill two Brooklynite lizards’ slow-paced pandemic routines.
Bennani and Barki, who are also life partners of six years, voice the two lizards while their friends chime in as the supporting characters, including an anchorwoman mouse, an online dancer who is a tiger and a musician horse next-door.
Meriem Bennani and Orian Barki, still from 2 Lizards (2020). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. © Meriem Bennani and Orian Barki.
The duo’s backgrounds in animation and documentary helped them capture the emotional nuances 2020's lockdowns. Infused with hints of what was deemed as a “new normal” at the time, the sequences contemplate the urban realities of a global emergency while the leads fill in the parts of both the voice of reason and the Greek chorus: they contradict and agree with one another in ways that will be familiar to many viewers. In fact, the videos' relatable tone has found a much wider audience than Bennani and Barki might originally have expected.
2 Lizards is currently on view at the Whitney after the institution acquired the work in late 2021 along with the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). Since Bennani posted the first 81-second chapter on her Instagram account on 18 March 2020, the now-viral footage has garnered nearly 200,000 views and has been lauded as an early example of art to come out of the pandemic experience, with the perfect alchemy of humour and social commentary.
Meriem Bennani and Orian Barki, still from 2 Lizards (2020). Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. © Meriem Bennani and Orian Barki.
The lizards’ banter in the first episode of 2 Lizards, about how the enforced lockdown is in fact a welcome pretext to avoid socialising, articulates a sentiment of JOMO (Joy Of Missing Out) shared by many—particularly in settings like the hyper-social art world.
Among the videos' fans is Whitney curator Rujeko Hockley, who had shown Bennani’s animation installation Mission Teens: French School in Morocco (2019) in the 2019 Whitney Biennial. “I immediately DM’ed Meriem about what I am looking at, which eventually became my favourite television show,” Hockley said at a recent panel with the artists, as well as the High Line Art curator Cecilia Alemani, and Audrey Teichmann of Audemars Piguet Contemporary.
Meriem Bennani, Windy, 2022. A co-commission of High Line Art and Audemars Piguet Contemporary. On view until May 2023. Photo by Timothy Schenck.
The panel in Manhattan's Meatpacking District marked not only the new Whitney show, but also Bennani’s kinetic sculpture Windy (2022), which is currently perched on the High Line (and was co-commissioned by Audemars Piguet Contemporary). The Moroccan-born multimedia artist’s first public sculpture echoes her dynamic video work with a moving structure of 200 3D-cut foam disks rotating at different speeds.
“As a moving image artist, I had to trick myself into making sculptures,” she said during the panel. The resulting whirlwind is both comic and alarming, which are overriding sentiments in Bennani and Barki’s videos about a global emergency seen through the eyes of two bewildered lizards. Similar to the videos' broad appeal, Bennani is pleased about the wide range of viewers encountering her High Line sculpture: “Audience is fun to think about, especially since so many people see Windy with no context—I enjoy being tagged in many self-help memes as people use the tornado as a metaphor for chaos.”