MEXICO CITY — A long saga has developed out of Jill Magid’s most controversial and highly publicized project yet. Magid unearthed the ashes of famed Mexican architect Luis Barragán to have a diamond made from his remains, and offered the stone set in an engagement ring to the woman who controls his professional archives. The ring was offered in exchange for returning the archives to Mexico. The power games, which I wrote about in a review of Magid’s show last year at Labor Gallery, continue at the Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo in an extensive exhibition, A letter always arrives at its destination, which completes the circle of the drama without any conclusive resolution.
Magid’s project of alternative facts and ambiguous post-truths reflects a political context. In Mexico — the birthplace of the surreally magical tale spun into a theatrical web by the artist — the reception to Magid’s work has been less laudatory than abroad. Here, Magid’s intervention into the legacy of the architect is primarily seen as a political act, and while the New York Times and the New Yorker, helped to foment the legend Magid was weaving, people in Mexico have been skeptical about the artist’s version of events.
But per our interview last year and given the nature of the project, I don’t think Magid is committed to relating a true version of events of this saga, nor is she attached to any particular outcome. However, with the exhibition at the MUAC, she makes good on her promise to return the ring to Mexico, where it’s on display for the first time after a stint in Europe and the United States.
More than affect the disposition of the Barragán archives or the architect’s legacy, Magid has solidified her own legacy with this giant effort which amounts to her magnum opus. Indeed, she has inserted herself into the afterlife of the architect and ruffled feathers in a place where Barragán is a revered as a hero. Despite layers of formality set in writing and signed contracts, there is a deeply unsettling imperfection in the saga of Magid, Barragán, and Federica Zanco, who controls the archives that Magid sought to unlock with the ring, like Frodo in the epic fantasy, The Lord of the Rings.
Proving Magid’s talent for theater, the exhibition begins with a fake out: an identical engagement band set in a display case sunken into the wall turns out to be reserved for a diamond that will be made from the ashes of the artist when she dies — a stipulation written in an accompanying contract. It isn’t until I enter the last gallery of the exhibition that I see the ring.
Let’s not kid ourselves; the architect’s presence in the space is what draws crowds. Curiosity about his physical remains immortalized in a blue diamond certainly lured me into the museum. In the exhibition at the MUAC, and throughout the entire project, Magid has expertly synthesized an allure surrounding the architect-diamond artwork. Never has Walter Benjamin’s idea of art’s “aura” been more clearly expressed — although, perhaps turned on its head by Magid. While Benjamin was concerned with authenticity, as threatened by the age of mechanical reproduction, Magid’s project both constructs and destroys authenticity. Though she claims publicly that the project emerged from her desire for the archive now kept in Switzerland to be accessible to the people in Barragán’s home country, I suspect she never anticipated that Zanco would accept her proposal.
“I don’t see the exhibition as an artifact,” Magid told me last year, and I didn’t quite understand what she meant. But in the exhibition at the MUAC I see an
artist whose work is fantasy rather than nonfiction. While creating an alternative Barragán archive, Magid negates the archive’s nature as a set of documents. She illuminates the tightrope between truth and fiction, and then walks it. This performance can be seen in her work with images of Barragán’s buildings, which Zanco entirely owns the copyrights to. After a warning from Zanco, Magid took extraordinary measures to skirt copyright law, barely on this side of legal, while still displaying images of Barragán’s creations. In the exhibition at the MUAC, images are displayed in special frames built to accommodate the books where they’re printed legally, and these original documents make for laborious viewing for the visitor who is given much to read.
The artist worked closely with lawyers in the elaboration of the entire project, escaping legal structures through loopholes and clever manipulation of the truth. In the gallery, there are iPads displaying email conversations between Zanco and Magid, with entire paragraphs redacted with black tape applied directly to the screen, again alluding to political games and the legalized, bureaucratic editing of truth.
In the end, the exhibition is a beast bigger than the artist. While it may have emerged from her desire to access Barragán’s professional archives, the art is in her humanization of the architect and herself in a messy multinational drama. Magid didn’t shy away from the conflicts inherent to a project that resurrects the dead, and questions copyright and intellectual property policies through both artistic and legal investigation. The Benjaminian aura surrounding this project that lives in the delicate negotiations, emails, and meetings between Magid and the Barragán family (the drama behind the curtain) is masterfully manipulated on a scope rarely seen.
A letter always arrives at its destination is on view at the MUAC (Insurgentes Sur 3000. Centro Cultural Universitario) until October 8.