“My work goes beyond metaphor”: A Conversation with Jill Magid
In Mexico the tradition of creating ex-votos acts as a testament to a miracle, a token of gratitude, and as an exchange for a promise. In her recent exhibition at Labor Gallery in Mexico City, Jill Magid channels this same tradition, emphasizing a vow and subsequent potential exchange. Titled “Ex-Voto,” this is one of a series of exhibitions that looks into the complicated case of the professional archive of Luis Barragán, a prolific architect who lived and worked in Mexico City, and the public inaccessibility of the archive since it was purchased by the company Vitra and moved to their corporate headquarters in Switzerland. The project has since become a point of conversation in Mexico, and to this conversation between Magid and myself. An exhibition of Barragán’s work is on view in New York at Timothy Taylor 16×24 through November 19.
LESLIE MOODY CASTRO: Can you explain your choice of title, “Ex-Voto”? Specifically, how do the story of The Barragán Archives and the work The Proposal operate in tandem with one another?
JILL MAGID: The Barragán Archives, which I began in 2013, is an extended, multimedia project examining of the legacy of Luis Barragán. At the core of the project is the question of artistic legacy: how it is constructed, manipulated, accessed, and controlled. In ideal circumstances, artistic legacy is shared, as a gift. The Proposal is a climactic artwork within The Barragán Archives project that includes a genuine diamond produced from the cremated remains of Luis Barragán, set into an engagement ring, and offered to Federica Zanco, Director of the Barragan Foundation, in exchange for the return of Barragán’s archive to Mexico and the public.
“Ex-Voto” ran concurrent to The Proposal’s exhibition in Switzerland, and its title refers to the series of four works I am showing within the exhibition. Collectively called The Miracles, each Ex-Voto is a cast tin horse painted by a professional ex-voto painter that I hired in Mexico City, whom I provided with images and texts. Ex-voto literally means, “from the vow made,” or “according to the promise I made.” The Barragán Archives is the result of many years’ worth of research and engagement, meaningful relationships, and forged partnerships and the ex-votos I made offer gratitude to those inspiring collaborations, our shared commitments, and to what I believe to be their miraculous outcomes.
A votive offering is a gift for the dead, intended to be buried with them, and not to be recouped by the living. An ex-voto, like a legacy, remains in the realm of the living.
How is this exhibition either mimicking the process of an ex-voto or acting as a metaphor for it?
To make The Proposal, and to do the necessary work and research of The Barragán Archives (of which this work is a part) required, I collaborated and partnered with many people and institutions, including the Barragán family, art organizations, non-profit organizations, government bodies, lawyers, professors, architects, and more. I wanted to make a work that would thank these partners, these bodies, for their collaboration and for our various relationships that grew from our collaborations. Together, we expanded our understandings of legacy and how it can be lived, and activated. Traditional ex-votos offered a beautiful form for gratitude, and they inspired my own versions of them.
You’ve talked about this project in terms of a love triangle in your exhibitions “Woman With Sombrero,” at Art in General in 2013, Yvon Lambert in 2014, and MAZ in 2014. Can you describe this role?
It is important to me that my work goes beyond metaphor, engaging the law and structures of control in both its finished form as well as through the process of creation. I believe that an understanding of how artistic legacy is constructed, shaped, manipulated, and shared is an important cultural issue. I don’t see art or an archive as a fixed or dead body, but as something alive and that continues to give. That’s not inevitable: to do so, it must be kept alive by remaining accessible, with the possibility for continual engagement.
An artist’s work is complete at their death, but their legacy is in its infancy. I’m trying to understand Barragán and his legacy. And my effort to understand myself in relation to them is part of the work of The Barragán Archives, which I explored in the exhibition “Woman With Sombrero,” and others. While I was not permitted to see Barragán’s professional archive at the Barragán Foundation in Switzerland, I was given full access to his personal archive at Casa Barragán in Mexico City. Much of the first few years of the project grew from my research and hands-on exploration of the personal archive, and my inability to access the professional archive.
You have traditionally worked with systems of surveillance and loopholes in laws, as in the Failed States project (2012). Why did you decide to focus on Barragán and his legacy?
My work has continued to center around themes of access, power and the law since I first started showing in 1999. Before The Barragán Archives, I’d mainly engaged with government institutions such as CCTV operations, police, and secret services. With The Barragán Archives, I entered into a new territory of privatized power. I wanted to understand what it meant for an artist’s legacy to be controlled by Vitra, a corporation. To do so, I needed to engage with copyright law, intellectual property rights, and fair use doctrine.
I’ve explored questions around artistic legacy within my work before. Auto Portrait Pending (2005), is a work that confronts my own legacy, by way of my physical body and its relationship to the art market. To make the work, I signed a contract with a company to become a diamond when I die, which will be set in a gold ring. Until the diamond′s creation, the artwork exists only of the empty ring setting, the corporate contract, and a series of documents. While The Proposal takes on a similar form — a diamond with attendant paperwork — it does so in a very different context, with a different intention. The Proposal is a gift, intended to inspire another gift: the repatriation of Barragán’s archive to Mexico and its free accessibility to the public.
There have been some criticisms of the project. Can you speak openly about this? And was it simply fascination that led to a genuine offer of the ring to Ms. Zanco?
Yes, I am always looking for opportunities in my work to directly engage systems of power, and to find the human core within a seemingly impenetrable system. In this case I found a powerful artist’s legacy that is constricted by corporate power.
Yet The Proposal is created and offered as a gift. It is both an artwork and a potential tool of negotiation. The ring avoids the market completely by not being for sale; it is non-transactional and therefore opens up the possibility of lasting relationships created by the act of gift exchange. The ring may only be exchanged for the return and public access to the archive.
Gift-giving is the transfer of property rights over particular objects. Property is not a thing, but a relationship among people through things. In order to remain alive, an artist’s legacy must be shared, experienced, and open. Offering the ring to Ms. Zanco is an opportunity to bring Barragán’s legacy out of private control and back to the commons.
What would happen after the archive is returned to Mexico? Where would it live, is there a plan?
As stated in The Family Agreement, a contract between the family and myself, about The Proposal:
The Artwork will exist in two periods: the proposal period and the engagement period. The Artwork will be displayed during both periods, as described in The Agreement.
The Artist will offer the Ring to the Archivist, in Switzerland, at the first exhibition of the Artwork. This offer will initiate the proposal period. In order for the Archivist to receive the Ring, she must agree to relocate the Archive from the Barragan Foundation, in Birsfelden, Switzerland, to a publicly accessible site or institution in Mexico. The Archivist may accept the Ring and the terms of the offer at any moment.
If the Archivist accepts the offer, the Family, the Archivist, and other relevant parties will negotiate the terms of the Archive’s relocation.
As you see from the contract, once The Archivist (Ms. Zanco) accepts The Proposal, she, the family and other relevant parties will negotiate a publicly accessible site in Mexico. This may be a library or a university, or similar, or perhaps even a new building built specifically for it. There are many possibilities.