Having sold his soul for the sum of his earthly desires, the protagonist of Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus (1604) demands a glimpse of the mythical beauty, Helen of Troy. ‘Was this the face that launch’d a thousand ships / And burnt the topless towers of Ilium?’, Faustus muses. But Helen didn’t launch those ships by her virtue alone. The love she inspired – strong enough to destroy an entire city – was contaminated by notions of property.
When the owner of the Swiss furniture company Vitra proposed to his paramour, architectural historian Federica Zanco, no diamond ring would do. Instead, Rolf Fehlbaum’s fiancée had another request: the professional archive of Mexican modernist architect Luis Barragán, which included the intellectual property rights to the architect’s name and images of his work. In 1995, Fehlbaum successfully negotiated the purchase of the professional half of the estate and presented it to his fiancée. Since that moment, this archive has been stored in a bunker under the Vitra headquarters in Switzerland, with Zanco acting as the sole gatekeeper.
Enter Jill Magid, an artist who uses her multifaceted projects to slip her fingers through the latticework of institutional power structures, testing for places that give or gap. Having stumbled upon the architect’s story (Magid’s Mexico City gallery neighbours Casa Barragán), she resolved to restore Barragán’s legacy to his public. Her project, The Barragán Archives (2013–ongoing), has treated the architect’s estate as a case study for testing the limits of what can be owned. Magid’s most recent exhibition, ‘The Proposal’, questions Zanco’s motivations by offering her a chance to repatriate Barragán’s archives in return for an even more intimate token of ownership: a blue diamond, grown from the cremated ashes of the architect.
‘The Proposal’ offsets its macabre undertones in the first gallery with The Offering (Tapete de Flores) (2016), a ceremonial flower carpet in the dazzling hues of the Day of the Dead, the yearly celebration of the co-existence of the living and dead. In the next room, the six-minute video The Exhumation (2016) documents, in detail, the physical retrieval of the architect’s ashes from a memorial monument in his hometown, Guadalajara. Before a crowd of Barragán’s surviving family and regional dignitaries, two workmen chip away the concrete and brick to extract the tin of remains, carefully spooning out exactly 530 grammes (the minimum required to grow a diamond) into a plastic bag, then replacing them with a statuette of a horse matching the weight of the extracted remains. This work is preceded by a framed image of one of the architect’s outdoor fountains, which Magid had to extract from Zanco’s own book on Barragán, because no other reproductions have been approved. In effect, the architect’s own body is easier to access than his work.
In the final two galleries, three vitrines display selections from the project’s impressive paper trail, including Magid’s correspondence with Barragán’s family and with Algordanza, the Swiss company specializing in memorial diamonds. A copy of the handwritten letter Magid presented to Zanco consciously adopts the phrasing of the architect’s old love letters, thus positioning Magid as a new potential suitor, whose grand gesture – the diamond – lies in wait on the other side of the room. According to Algordanza, the stone is 2.02 carats, ‘as grown’ in a shade of ‘fancy deep blue’. Laser cut into the diamond itself is the phrase: ‘I am wholeheartedly yours.’ Openly confusing love and property, these words dangle a painfully vacant promise. Barragán did not choose Zanco; whether she owns his mind (via the archives) or his body (the diamond), she has no claim on his heart. All that can truly be hers is this rock. Ashes to ashes, dust to diamonds.
First published in Issue 181