Diamond Interchange

In order to gain access to the archives of a famed Mexican architect, artist Jill Magid resorted to the most extreme version of a marriage proposal.

The tapeta de flores in Jill Magid’s exhibit “The Proposal.” (Peter Lawrence Kane)

Diamonds make for easy metaphors. They’re forever, they’re a girl’s best friend, they’re found on baseball fields and as a suit in a deck of cards, they’re bloodied by conflict and exploitation in the Global South. The world’s hardest natural substance, diamonds are beautiful and rare — but chemically speaking, they’re nothing more than the stuff of pencils.

Which is to say, they’re pure carbon, one of the building blocks of life squeezed under enormous pressure: a crystalline, distilled version of itself. Conceptual artist Jill Magid (“MAG-id”), through her Auto Portrait Pending project, has determined that after her biological death, her remains are to be turned into a diamond. She has effectively tasked the executors of her estate with collapsing her into pure form, as if crushing the entire universe back to what it was before the Big Bang.

“Often in my work I’m a protagonist or the protagonist,” Magid says, “so I thought about using that system as a way to explore my own body as an artwork and as an artistic legacy.”

This future work has no intended recipient, and comes with a stack of contractual paperwork that any eventual collector must sign. But it’s also a jumping-off point for Magid’s even more ambitious work, currently up at the San Francisco Art Institute (SFAI).

“Jill Magid: The Proposal” documents the gift of a diamond, not of securing matrimonial commitment but of restoring an artistic legacy. It is the ongoing story of how, randomly, on a trip to Guadalajara, Mexico, Magid stumbled upon the life and work of Luis Barragán, a formidable Mexican minimalist architect who died in 1988 and who is not well-known in the United States. His archive (and copyrights) had passed into the hands of Swiss industrialists named Federica Zanco and Rolf Fehlbaum, who’d intended to organize them, but who have thus far denied almost all scholarly access. Time was crucial, as many of the architect’s buildings have already been demolished, so Magid turned to a novel solution to coax them — gingerly — into releasing the vast trove of material.

In cooperation with Barragán’s family, Magid exhumed his remains and had them compressed into a diamond, then made it into a ring. “The Proposal” consists of that ring — and the accompanying multi-page letter, addressed to Federica Zanco, the current custodian of the Barragán archive, pleading for open access — along with a short documentary about its creation, and some secondary (but by no means minor) pieces pertaining to death in Mexican culture, like a tapeta de flores made from marigolds. The New Yorker published a long story about it earlier this summer.

According to SFAI curator Hesse McGraw, what “foregrounds this project is something that has been an ongoing concern of Jill’s work: a way of engaging bureaucratic, impersonal seemingly inhuman structures in a very human way.”

“It’s easy to get wrapped up in the sensationalist or dramatic aspects of the work,” McGraw adds. “In some ways, it’s a gothic love story crossed with an intellectual-property thriller.”

It’s not Magid’s first foray into the world of red tape, either. Several years ago, she approached the authorities responsible for closed-circuit TVs in Amsterdam, asking if she could decorate the cameras. We don’t work with artists, the city’s police told her. So she approached them again, this time as a corporation called System Is Your Security Ornamentation, and they hired her as a consultant. (It turned into a two-year residency, the unredacted report of which was displayed at London’s Tate Modern before being confiscated and destroyed by the Dutch equivalent of the Secret Service.)

For “The Proposal,” Magid talked to a number of different copyright attorneys in order to ground the work.

“They were excited there was something tangible like this to discuss intellectual copyright,” she says. “Before this project, I was interested in some of these things, and I realized I wasn’t equipped — and that these are laws that involve me as a creative person.”

Lawyers can keep a case in limbo forever, but a marriage proposal needs an answer sooner or later. I asked Magid if, since The New Yorker article was published, there had been any definitive answer from Zanco? In other words, was their correspondence still formal and tentative, or did she accept?

Magid is keeping playfully mum, emphasizing only that she “gave an option.”

“I can’t tell you how many people, right when I proposed, were like, ‘What did she say?'” Magid says. “Did you really think she’d be like, ‘No way!’? It’s something that has to be processed.”

But “The Proposal,” in addition to being a bid for open intellectual exchange and a variation on the rituals of marriage, is also a simple memorial to a dead artist.

“It feels like an offering, my offering,” Magid says of her tapeta de flores, which is full of marigolds. “It’s an original design. I work with these guys in Mexico who makes the ones in the largest cemetery there, and my graphic designer and I worked together using their aesthetic.”

“Even the smell, there’s something clean about them,” she adds. “Also, the belief is that the marigolds are meant to last a week. Day of the Dead and then they’re cleaned up. [“The Proposal”] will stay through mid-December, so they flowers will all die. I like when artworks die and corrode and change. Galleries don’t, but I do.”

“Jill Magid: The Proposal” Through Dec. 10, at the San Francisco Art Institute’s Walter and McBean Galleries 800 Chestnut St., S.F. Free; 415-641-1241 or sfai.edu

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