Since 2013, conceptual artist Jill Magid has worked on “The Barragán Archives,” a project which encompasses her efforts to access the archives of revered Mexican architect Luis Barragán. Currently, all of Barragán’s materials are held in a vault by Swiss furniture company Vitra. And the key is kept by Frederica Zanco, the wife of Vitra heir Rolf Fehlbaum. Magid has meticulously documented the myriad legal and informal procedures she’s gone through in trying to get to the archive. The most well-publicized step came when (with the Barragán family’s permission) she exhumed some of the architect’s ashes, had them pressed into a diamond, set it in a ring, and offered that ring to Zanco in exchange for entry to the vault — all of this playing on the rumor that Fehlbaum bought the archives for Zanco in lieu of an engagement ring.
Adding to the already existing layers of fictionalization and obfuscation Magid has conjured around her quest, she chronicled the whole process in her new film The Proposal, which screened this past weekend at the Camden International Film Festival. Parts of the movie were already incorporated into her previous works. The sequence in which workers open up Barragán’s vault in order to retrieve his ashes was before this a short film, The Exhumation. Likewise, the documents (or reproductions of documents) presented to the camera were part of her exhibitions The Proposal and A Letter Always Arrives At Its Destination, the previous installments in this project.
These elements take on new significance in the shift of context from galleries — where they can be perused at a visitor’s leisure — to a film, in which the artist has full control of when and how they are shown to a viewer. A film is linear, less tangible in contrast to a display of physical objects. For Magid, who in her work has continually tested the boundaries of what we count as “real,” this seems an appropriate new step. Whether or not she ever somehow gets into the Barragán archive is beside the point; she has built this project around the battle of wills between individual and corporation, with the archive turned into a MacGuffin of sorts. Its contents are less important than its status as a coveted thing.
Along the way, Magid has drawn ire for her methods and the perceived disrespect of her treatment of Barragán’s body, particularly in Mexico, where he is a national treasure. With this movie, she is able to acknowledge the controversy, adding a parade of different sensational headlines to her project’s file of documents. There are clips of a Spanish-language television debate on her actions as well. In this way, she invites further outside participation into the project, allowing observers to draw her own conclusion. Even to disagree with her seems to play into her intent, adding one more facet to her journey.
The Proposal is shot with many careful images, often still ones. Fitting into the wider theme of legal procedure in “The Barragán Archives,” she pays special attention to processes — how workers break into and then reseal the vault, for example. In spirit with Barragán’s work, she frames shots to let audiences take in and consider different spaces. When she spends time in Barragán’s house, searching for some spiritual kinship with him, the camera almost suggests that closeness. Her narration is frequent and often meditative, making it feel like a cinematic diary. The documentary doesn’t bring closure to her fight for Barragán’s archive, but it will work its way under a viewer’s skin and leave them with persistent ideas to consider.
The Camden International Film Festival paid for the writer’s flight and accommodations.