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A Jewel that Was Once an Architect

Friday, August 5, 2016

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The story of Mexican architect Luis Barragán’s legacy was strange enough already; after his death, his entire body of work was bought and seemingly squirreled away by a Swiss couple, who put severe limits on its use and reproduction.

Then a conceptual artist turned his remains into a diamond, and it got really weird.

As reported this week by The New Yorker, an American artist named Jill Magid became interested in the story of Barragán’s professional archive when she had a gallery across the street from the house where he lived, a United Nations World Heritage Site in Mexico City. It was there that she hatched a plan, with the help of Barragán’s family, to exhume his cremated remains and have them compressed into a diamond.

Casa Barragan
By UNESCO, CC-BY SA 3.0

Barragán's house, a United Nations World Heritage Site in Mexico City.

Barragán lived from 1902-1988, and was known for his colorful buildings, all built in Mexico.

The story goes that, while Barragán’s personal belongings were bequeathed to a friend who established a foundation and made them publicly available, his work was willed to another friend, who killed himself. His wife, after unsuccessful attempts to sell the archive wholesale to Mexican institutions, sold it to Federica Zanco and her husband, Rolf Fehlbaum.

Engagement Gift

While Zanco denied it to the New Yorker reporter, legend surrounding the deal says that businessman Fehlbaum purchased the archive for Zanco, a curator, as an engagement present, in lieu of a ring. That’s what got artist Magid thinking: Could she come up with an engagement ring that would convince Zanco to give the archives up?

The New Yorker article paints a portrait of Zanco as a well-intentioned art historian who hoped to make Barragán’s body of work her job—she worked for years with an assistant, cataloging the works, and at one point created a traveling exhibit of Barragán material. But the archive has never been completed, and her devotion to keeping Barragán’s work from being exploited has led to its being nearly impossible to learn about.

So, as the piece relates, Magid, with Barragán’s family members, had the urn of his ashes dug up and sent off to a company that performs an accelerated compression process that turns cremated remains into diamonds for jewelry. She had the diamond set in a ring, and brought it to Switzerland to “propose” a trade: The ring for the archive being returned to Mexico.

Not So Fast

So far, there’s no deal: Zanco expressed to The New Yorker that she couldn’t see a satisfactory way to transfer the archive to public or nonprofit ownership right now. But, for her part, Magid intends to hold onto the ring, in hopes that someday Zanco will be ready to wear it—and the world will get a better look at Barragán.

In the meantime, Magid has an art show this fall in San Francisco that details the whole project. The title of the exhibition: The Proposal.

   

Tagged categories: Architects; Artists; Color + Design; Education

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