A few years ago, artist Jill Magid turned Luis Barragán, Mexico’s greatest modern architect, into a diamond. With the permission of Barragán’s heirs, Magid had his urn disinterred from the Rotonda de los Jaliscienses Ilustres in the Mexican state of Jalisco, a monument where the celebrated are entombed. Magid then had a small portion of Barragán’s ashes compressed into a two-carat rough-cut diamond and set in a silver engagement ring.
The ring is just a part of Magid’s years-long conceptual project, “The Barragán Archive,” in which she audaciously probes the power systems of artistic custodianship as she tries to gain access to Barragán’s archive.
The 86-minute film “The Proposal,” screening at AFS Cinema Sept. 21 and 22, is part documentary of Magid’s project and part performance art itself, a craftily staged move in Magid’s complicated ongoing game of artistic seduction.
The film tracks Magid’s correspondence with Federica Zanco, the Italian-born architectural historian who controls access to the Barragán’s archive. The materials — tens of thousands of drawings, prints, models and files — are held in a vault by the Swiss furniture company Vitra, whose owner Rolf Fehlbaum, is Zanco’s husband. Fehlbaum bought Barragán’s archive in 1994 for a reported $3 million, gifting it to Zanco as an engagement present.
Claiming that she is in the process of preparing a catalogue raisonné of Barragán’s work, Zanco refuses all requests for access to the materials. The foundation Zanco established to oversee Barragán papers control the rights to all of the architect’s work — including the rights to any photographs of his buildings. It also trademarked Barragán’s name, though curiously without the accent mark.
Barragán’s genius was to reconcile traditional Mexican architecture with modernism. With a lyricism of light and space, his boldly hued yet rigorously geometric buildings have had an influence over many, and still inspire.
As we hear in voiceovers, the letters between Magid and Zanco sound like gracious but determined rivals who share an obsessive love for the same man. We see some of Magid’s artistic research, her lavish courtship of Barragán’s family and the intense media reaction to and public critique of her project. And when Magid makes a trip to Switzerland to finally meet with Zanco, it’s played with all the suspense of a spy thriller, complete with a café meeting captured through a hidden zoom lens.
Magid’s proposal to Zanco is extraordinary, and direct. Accept the diamond ring — a little piece of Barragán — in exchange for returning the archive to Mexico, where many in that country feel it rightfully belongs.
Cool and extraordinarily self-aware, Magid ultimately casts herself, not Barragán, at the center of “The Proposal.” Yet the issues she raises about power and control in the art world are unquestionably important.
Shots in the air
“I look for a loophole to get in so I understand a system of power,” Magid told me in 2012. She was in Austin for “Failed States,” her exhibition at Arthouse (now merged into the Contemporary Austin).
Magid’s conceptually driven projects probe institutional systems of control, the complexity of mass surveillance and the ambiguities of intellectual property. For a 2005 project she contracted with a company to have her cremated remains turned into a diamond after she dies. For another project, “Evidence Locker,” she used surveillance footage of her in Liverpool, calling the police on duty with details of where she was and asking them to film her in particular poses. And when the Dutch secret service commissioned her to create an art project, the resulting novel-like document she created from interviews with security staffers proved so revealing that it had to be classified.
With “Failed States” Magid made comparisons between Goethe’s epic poem, Faust, about a scholar who sells his soul to the devil in exchange for unlimited knowledge, and Fausto Cardenas, who in 2010 used a small-caliber handgun to fire six shots into the air on the steps of the Texas State Capitol.
Magid witnessed Cardenas’ enigmatic act while she was on a research trip for her Arthouse commission. She had planned to base her project on snipers, and in particular the 1966 shooting when Charles Whitman killed 16 people and wounded dozens others, gunning them down from the UT tower.
But while she was passing through the Capitol on the way to UT, Magid saw state troopers rushing past. She followed them outside where she saw Cardenas fire his gun in the air before troopers tackled him. Afterward, the media-savvy Magid spoke to seemingly every journalist reporting on the incidentand in her Arthouse exhibit she included a six-minute loop of her on local news broadcasts.
“They were all over him. I could hear him saying ‘my hands are up,’ ” Magid told The Associated Press. And to the Dallas Morning News she said: “It was a mass of people on him. It looked like a football thing.”
Later, when I interviewed her about “Failed States” for the Austin American-Statesman, she told me: “I was so interested in the ambiguity of Fausto’s act. His gesture can’t be easily parsed. Yet I couldn’t get over the theatricality of everything he did.”
The exterior of Casa Barragán in Mexico City. Photo from the Casa Barragán website.
On a 2008 trip to Mexico City I visited Casa Barragán. Built in 1948, it was the architect’s primary residence and studio until his death in 1988. It is now a UNESCO World Heritage site. Spanish-only tours are offered by advance reservation and restricted to 12 people, though they’re were only six for the tour I went on. Absolutely no photography was allowed, a point the tour guide impressed on us more than once. (That policy seems to have changed now to allow for “personal” photographs; 2008 was just a year after the iPhone launched and many tourists still had cameras.)
Casa Barragán is the embodiment of the architect’s genius in synthesizing modernist aesthetics with traditional and vernacular elements — a disciplined symphony of color, light, shadow, form and texture. Intimate spaces give way to soaring open, windowed rooms that open up to the back garden. Barragán’s personally collected items and artwork are pretty much where he left them. Religious iconography (he was deeply Catholic) mixes surprisingly with folkware and modernist art.
Later, back in Austin, I wrote an article about Casa Barragán for the travel section of the Austin American-Statesman where I worked at the time. I emailed Casa Barragán requesting requesting press photographs, a fairly standard procedure; many cultural destinations have stock photos they make available to the press. The confusing reply I received asked both for an expensive photo use fee and said that the Casa Barragán didn’t need the publicity. (I know longer have a copy of the email.) An email to the Barragan Foundation in Switzerland went unanswered. I never got any photographs.
My editors opted to run the article without any accompanying images nonetheless, though in an image-heavy travel section, it was regulated to an inside page — the print newspaper equivalent of being hidden from view, just like Barragán’s archive.