As the spectacle of the 2016 United States presidential elections played out over the summer, Mexico hosted a surreal visit by a well-known, polarizing New Yorker. Mirroring Trump in her own way, Brooklyn-based conceptual artist Jill Magid brandished symbols of wealth and messianic messaging, while conducting a master-class in media manipulation. Much ink was spilt last year on her controversial mission to insert herself “into the life of a dead man,” with her four-year project The Barragán Archives (2012-16). The work was generally celebrated by standard-bearer publications and has been widely circulated on social media. In Mexico, however, the reception to Magid’s work has been decidedly more ambivalent. And broader questions loom: how are journalists to report stories responsibly when truth seems to matter less than attention, and the very fact of reporting becomes, itself, a post-truth prop? With hollow justifications of “alternative facts” ringing in our ears daily, it feels more than slightly uncomfortable to lift another skillful prevaricator upon our shoulders.
The dead man in question was Pritzker Prize-winning Mexican architect Luis Barragán, whose ashes Magid negotiated to have transformed into a one-carat diamond. This gem was set in an engagement ring, which she offered to Dr. Federica Zanco, the director of the architect’s professional archive, in exchange for the documents’ repatriation to Mexico from Switzerland. Titled The Proposal (2016), Magid’s offering of the ring represents “the final climactic instalment” of The Barragán Archives, which sought to “understand what it meant for an artist’s legacy to be controlled by a corporation.”
More than a multi-media work The Barragán Archives is a “multi media-outlet” work. In the deployment of the project, Magid wielded impressive PR savvy, both to promote the exhibitions and to needle Zanco into cooperation. The artist adeptly marketed herself as the agent of the architect’s spectacular transformation from ashes to diamond, by baiting publications and readers alike with romantic storylines drawn from wholesale fictionalizations of Barragán’s love letters. After a favorable New York Times review, Zanco’s responses to Magid’s work noticeably shifted from coolly dismissive to cautiously amicable.
Keenly aware of the media as her collaborator in building the narrative arc of the project, Magid’s published interviews patiently laid out the project’s (doubtlessly artful) framework. In article after article, she seized the opportunity to spin a tale – a whopper, and the conceptual basis of The Barragán Archives, involving a love triangle between her, Zanco, and Barragán – as journalistic fact. Beyond the poetic license that Magid takes with the architect’s correspondence, though, the real harm of the project lies at the level of representation: the devilish details that spoil the tidy fable.
The clumsy ideological framework of The Barragán Archives is based on oversimplifications and essentialisms that should give us pause. Reducing nuance to trite dictum, the work flattens the complex and fraught relationships between cultural patrimony and private property, the realities of institutional limits, and the balance between preservation and open access. Each player in the story is stereotyped: Zanco is a control-obsessed agent of a Swiss corporation, Mexicans are marginalized victims deprived of access to their own culture, and Magid, a romantic activist righting perceived wrongs. These idealizations reinforce a stubborn myth: contemporary transactions between people in Mexico and foreign entities can only be understood as a subaltern group being hoodwinked. They await their benevolent saviour.
As a whole, The Barragán Archives is based on problematizing the core elements of the archive imbroglio: private ownership of an important cultural symbol by a foreign corporation; restricted access in a facility in Switzerland (“The Bunker,” as she calls it); and Zanco’s enforcement of copyrights that she owns on images of Barragán’s designs.
Magid’s works wink at Zanco’s intellectual property rights by managing to barely circumvent legal infringement. In the various exhibitions that comprise The Barragán Archives, Magid has displayed copies of the catalogue from the Zanco-curated exhibition Luis Barragán: The Quiet Revolution (2001), as readymades with pages framed in still-bound books as though they were prints. Life-sized replicas of Barragán-designed furniture were wrapped with moving blankets in a Paris exhibition, ducking European copyright law. However, as a critique of the corporate privatization of culture, these pieces are largely supplemental to the core work of the project, Magid’s diamond ring proposal to Zanco: “the body for the body of work.”
Magid has staked her career on an image of her practice as a series of negotiations meant to reveal the limits of authority. However, her characterizations of her interactions with Zanco, the Barragán Family, and Mexican bureaucracy are so blatantly self-aggrandizing that any sanguine attempt to restore Mexico’s lost patrimony feels greatly diminished.
Again, inconvenient details confound the myth. In an interview with cultural media outlet GasTV, curator Daniel Garza-Usabiaga explains in detail Magid’s troublesome mischaracterizations of the archive’s administration. He balks at the artist’s description of Zanco’s relationship with the archive as “erotic;” her identification of one elderly and infirm family member as the negotiating representative of Barragán’s extended family; and the sacrilegious act of separating the deeply Catholic Barragán’s ashes to make the diamond. As with most spectacular post-truth: the further you press the facts, the uglier it all seems.
In any case, the quid pro quo of The Proposal is repatriation, not digitization or public visitation. So when Magid’s main criticism settles on the archive’s foreign location and ownership, her hazy promises of open access feel like a red herring. The exhibition catalogue proclaims: “If she [Zanco] accepts the ring, the archive becomes accessible to the public.” As yet, though, we have no idea how this would look. Magid has made public no concrete preparations to manage the files whose return she so ardently demands. She noticeably evades the question when Zanco asks her directly. It’s worth wondering whether her naivety about the limitations of public institutions in Mexico reflects blind optimism, or cynical repression. Is the work really so invested in its speculative mythologies that some Borgesian abstraction of an ideal library suffices to complete the picture?
Even taken as a purely symbolic gesture, there are problematic dynamics at play. Throughout the work Magid situates herself at centerstage: a Quixotic figure fighting on behalf of a defenceless abstraction of “Mexican People” deprived of their cultural artifact by a foreign corporation. And while questioning the private ownership of national treasures is a worthwhile cause; Magid’s insistence on framing Barragán’s legacy as a love triangle between a diamond architect and two adoring women in a bunker authors a cloying magical realism that she too-easily peddles as documentary. That she is aided so willingly by a press she knew she could count on is an achingly familiar sort of indictment. Critically atrophied and hungry for page-views, they couldn’t help but publish exactly the stories she wanted.
Compressing complex truths under romantic fictionalization and social media yields an ill-gotten gem: viral circulation of a fact-ish story goading clicks and shares, a well-worn device. As we all struggle in a dizzying time to understand the ethics of telling stories we’ve been manipulated to tell, it appears at least clear that the only artist’s legacy that The Barragán Archives cares about is Magid’s own. Press anything hard enough, and it’ll turn into something that endures.