Parsing 'The Proposal'

John Hill
16. May 2018
The filmmaker at Casa Luis Barragán (Photo: Jill Magid)

Artist Jill Magid's The Proposal tells the story of architect Luis Barragán's professional archive, currently held by the non-profit Barragan Foundation in Switzerland, and the artist's attempt to return it to Mexico. World-Architects editor John Hill attended a screening of the documentary at the Tribeca Film Festival last month and provides this analysis.

Although The Proposal, at only 83 minutes, is a relatively short film, it is the culmination of an ambitious five-year project — The Barragán Archives — by Jill Magid, an artist based in Brooklyn. The multimedia project consists of numerous exhibitions, installations, performances, and publications spanning from 2013 to 2018. The film, Magid's first, touches on many of the Archives' various pieces, which in turn act like signposts across the half decade: from her discovery of the great Mexican architect to her highly unconventional proposal to architectural historian Federica Zanco, the keeper of the archive.

The goal of Magid's larger visual and written work is, in her words, "to create new perspectives to long-established structures of power in society." She has done this by training as a spy, a police officer, and an embedded journalist; and she has gained access to power systems "to raise questions and concerns on how we live in relation to them." Given the conceptual foundation of her artwork, it's not surprising she was drawn to Luis Barragán — or more accurately, drawn to the controversial circumstances surrounding his professional archive.

The Backstory

In 1980, four years after a major retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, Mexican architect Luis Barragán won the Pritzker Architecture Prize, the second year of "architecture's Nobel." In 1983 he retired due to health reasons, and the following year he wrote a will that split his archives into two: his Mexico City home and studio with library to Ignacio Díaz Morales for the creation of an institution (what would become the publicly accessible Casa Luis Barragán); and his professional archive to Raúl Ferrara, his business partner. Barragán died in 1988, at the age of 86 and, sadly, Ferrara killed himself in 1993. So the archive shifted to Ferrara's widow, Rosario Uranga, who tried to find a buyer in Mexico (including Casa Luis Barragán) but was unsuccessful.

In 1995, with the Barragán archive consigned to gallerist Max Protetch in New York, Vitra CEO Rolf Fehlbaum stepped in and allegedly paid $2.5 million for the archive as an engagement gift for his then fiancé, Federica Zanco. The following year the Barragan Foundation, under the direction of Zanco, was formed. Based in Birsfelden, Switzerland, the non-profit reportedly holds the archive of more than 13,500 drawings and other materials in an inaccessible portion of the Vitra campus in Weil am Rhein, Germany. Additionally, the Barragan Foundation owns a US trademark on Luis Barragan (sans accent) and, per their website, "owns complete rights to the oeuvre of Luis Barragán." In turn, any production — be it a book, exhibition, or film — has to gain permission from the Barragan Foundation and pay sometimes prohibitive fees to use of photos or other materials.

The Correspondence

With the legacy of Mexico's most famous architect wrapped up in intertwining strands of ownership, trademark, and copyright, ​it seemed like just a matter of time before Magid would insert herself into mix, using her artwork to draw attention to the archive and raise questions about it. Magid visited Casa Luis Barragán in 2012, when she learned about the status of the archive. She must have developed the concept for The Proposal immediately, for in January 2013 she approached the Barragán family with the idea for what would eventually become an art object, a series of exhibitions, a book, and the documentary film.

That same year Magid reached out to Federica Zanca requesting access to the archive for research on a solo exhibition at Art Basel Parcours. Zanca replied but denied Magid access to the archive, citing the ongoing research the Barragan Foundation was carrying out for a comprehensive catalogue on the architect (the catalogue is still forthcoming). This correspondence was the first of many between the artist and the architectural historian, exchanges that are read aloud during the film — Magid as herself, a voice actor for Zanco — and therefore serve alongside Magid's exhibitions to structure the film's narrative flow.

The Proposal

The correspondences culminate in a face-to-face meeting that takes place with Magid, Zanco and Fehlbaum inside the café of the Vitrahaus on the Vitra campus. (The meeting was captured by a colleague of the filmmaker with a long-range camera but no sound.) It is there that Magid makes "the proposal" to Zanco — in the form of a gift and a wish for reciprocity: returning the Barragán archive to Mexico. The film builds to this moment, imperceptibly at first but then dramatically near the end. The actual gift isn't even revealed until after the above exchange, such that the film treats the gift as if it were a surprise or unexpected twist in the narrative. But for fans of either Barragán or Magid, or even for viewers paying close enough attention, the fact of its existence is clear. (No spoilers here, but interested readers can click here to find out what the proposal consists of.)

In the voyage from Magid's one-week stay in Casa Luis Barragán (she was granted access during the Day of the Dead, when the building was otherwise closed to the public) to the meeting in Vitrahaus​, viewers are treated to glimpses of Barragán's architecture; the words of Magid/Zanco email exchanges; conversations between Magid, the Barragán family and others in Mexico; and the working process of Magid, whose art is as much about process (including legal agreements and other typically non-art elements) as product or performance. Clearly, every aspect of Magid's art is thought out and, in the film, thoroughly explained. (A non-spoiler example: Magid replaces something of Barragán's that she takes with something she thinks he would appreciate, something that comes across as appropriate.)

In the end, the proposal of the film's title is unexpected, intriguing and audacious, but somehow highly logical, as if it was destined to arise from the act of Barragán's archive being moved to Switzerland more than 20 years ago. Such is the power of Magid's film, which really functions as an argument: she draws attention to the archive and persuades us that it belongs back in Mexico. But does the film serve to persuade Zanco, the archive's gatekeeper? That would make sense. If so, Magid fails because she only sees the archive from her perspective, as a conceptual artist interested in the control of an artist's legacy, rather than as somebody who deeply appreciates Barragán's architecture, like Zanco surely does. Maybe Magid does love Barragán's architecture; if so, it doesn't come across strongly in the film. Instead, she seems enamored with Barragán the long-departed person more than with the buildings and landscapes that serve as his legacy as much as — if not more than — the drawings and other artifacts that went into their creation.

The Proposal, 2018
English, 83 minutes
Directed by Jill Magid
Produced by Jarred Alterman, Laura Coxson, Charlotte Cook

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