The diamond that was made with the ashes of Luis Barragán.
The diamond that was made with the ashes of Luis Barragán.Labor Gallery

In 2015, the American artist Jill Magid transformed part of the ashes of the Mexican architect Luis Barragán into a two-carat diamond. Magid had the authorization of the family and the authorities to exhume the urn from the Rotunda de los Jaliscienses Ilustres, in Guadalajara, and turn 525 grams of the dust into a piece of jewelry. She did and caused a schism. Seven years later, the academic Laura Ayala has returned to the controversial work to look at it from the perspective of art theory. “The ring scandal was so strong that it did not allow it to be discussed further. But art cannot be judged from a moral perspective”, says the author.

Magid did not know Barragán or his legacy in 2012 when he came across, by chance, the architect’s home-studio in Mexico City. In the house, built in 1948, the geometric shapes, open spaces and bright colors that characterize the only Pritzker prize in the country are recognized. Magid learned at that time that the architect’s professional archive is in Switzerland, guarded by Federica Zanco, an Italian historian who chairs the Barragan Foundation. Magid also heard a rumor: that businessman Rolf Fehlbaum had offered Zanco the files as a wedding gift. The documents sold to the couple had arrived in Switzerland in 1995.

The artist then championed herself “with the frustration that the archives are not in Mexico and that they are not accessible to the world,” says Ayala, and began to “bombard Zanco with ideas, invitations, requests, and letters.” In parallel, she obtained authorization to exhume the urn with Barragán’s remains and turn a quarter of the ashes into diamonds. A company carried out the process in six months and with the stone set in a ring, Magid traveled to Switzerland to propose to Zanco an exchange: the body of the artist for the body of the work. The gesture completes the work titled The Proposal (The Proposal), a nod to the rumor heard by Magid years before. But Zanco rejected it.

An article by journalist Alice Gregory in the magazine The New Yorker uncovered the news of the exhumation in 2016. The ring, along with other pieces, was exhibited shortly after at the University Museum of Contemporary Art in Mexico and indignation erupted in the country: the architect Miquel Adrià resigned from the Fundación de Arquitectura Tapatía Luis Barragán, who manages the Pritzker work in Mexico; the writer Juan Villoro called what happened a “necrophilic barter” in one of the articles of repudiation that he wrote; the journalist Elena Poniatowska signed, along with 70 other people, a letter to investigate the exhumation process of the architect.

Luis Barragán in a file photograph.
Luis Barragán in a file photograph.Armando Salas Portugal

“Many would like to close the case and say that it did not exist, that it is something shameful for Mexico and for world architecture. I think we have to open the conversation, ”says Ayala from Puerto Vallarta, in the State of Jalisco, where he has just presented the book 525 grams. Jill Magid: the transformation of Luis Barragán (Artes de México, 2022) –on November 28 it will be presented at the Guadalajara Book Fair–. The academic, then, set out to study the controversial work from an aesthetic perspective and began to investigate Magid’s career. “This turning ashes into diamonds was not the first time she proposed it,” she says.

In 2005, the visual artist decided that after she died, her remains would be turned into a diamond. The unfinished work –Magid is currently 50 years old– is titled Selfportrait Pending. For The Salem Diamonds, tried to transform the ashes of 3,489 psychiatric patients who were not claimed by their families, but did not get permission. And a little later he devised The Proposal. She herself, on her website, points out that with her work she seeks to compromise “power structures.” In this case, those related to the artistic legacy of the architect.

-The collection has not returned to Mexico, did Magid’s idea fail in that sense?

–The ring is a link in a series of questions. Magid’s objective was to show how a private corporation adjudicates or acquires someone’s property and intellectual rights and how it manages them. In that she succeeded. I feel like the real purpose of the ring was never to get the files back.

The academic believes that the work was “a watershed.” “It had an impact on contemporary art, not only in Mexico but in the world.” The Center Pompidou, in Paris, bought in 2018 the documentary that records Magid’s trial and three years later it acquired seven central pieces of The Barragan Archives, the series of multimedia projects created by Magid since 2012, among which is the ring. “Fifteen days ago they placed the lectern (a four-sided lectern designed by Barragán and reproduced by Magid with variations) on the fourth floor of the museum,” says Ayala. The ring is at the San Francisco Art Institute, which financed the transformation, and is “indefinitely available for acceptance by Federica Zanco.” The author recounts that she asked the family of the architect, co-owner and co-author of The Proposalif they felt disappointed: “No, they are still in the same position as when they signed the contract.”

Contemporary art and modern art

Magid’s approaches as a contemporary artist, the essay reads, “have gone beyond the field of art to submit to discussions in the arena of the media, the juridical and the legal”. “There is a big difference with modern art, which demanded from the artist a distance from the object. In Jill Magid’s art, the viewer has to become much more involved,” says Ayala, who adds: “Changing the switch it costs us”. “If you come across a ring in a museum without having read anything, you turn around and say how strange. Contemporary art sometimes gets out of hand,” she points out.

The academic Laura Ayala.
The academic Laura Ayala.Courtesy

Ayala compares Magid’s work with that of artists “that nobody questions today, but they caused a lot of commotion”: “Of course, a special factor is involved here, which is the issue of ashes.” But Ayala sees the diamond created by Magid as a “relic” – a venerated part of the body or dress of a saint – albeit “postmodern”. In this analogy, museums are “the new temples”. “Contemporary art is very far from the perceptions that people have and, above all, it continues to change constantly”, writes Ayala.

The academic acknowledges that Magid has put “his finger on the sore spot” because “architectural legacies have not been given conservation treatment.” “All these very alarmed voices, why aren’t they now furious to defend the legacy built by Luis Barragán? I think that is what should worry us a lot: that it be maintained, valued and preserved, ”she points out. Ayala criticizes that the scandal has “tarnished Barragán”: “Instead of caring about us as an architect, we care about it like ashes.”

‘525 grams. Jill Magid: the transformation of Luis Barragán’, by Laura Ayala

Editorial Arts of Mexico, 2022.

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