< div align= "justify"> On April 27th, more than a hundred people gathered in the underground auditorium of a prestigious contemporary-art museum in Mexico City. Those who couldn’t find seats lingered outside, watching a live video feed of what was transpiring within; more than seventy thousand others streamed the proceedings at home. For almost two hours, the audience looked on as epic and often metaphysical questions—of faith, language, taste, value, ownership, legacy—were debated with ferocious intensity. The subject of the discussion was a diamond—2.02 carats, rough-cut—which, as I reported last year, was made from the compressed ashes of the late Mexican architect Luis Barragán. Created with the permission of the local government in Guadalajara, where Barragán was buried, and with the blessing of his direct heirs, the jewel was set in a silver engagement ring. The ring was conceived as part of a project by the American conceptual artist Jill Magid, with the idea that it might be exchanged for the architect’s professional archive, which has been kept in Switzerland for close to twenty-five years.
Barragán has been dead for three decades now, but he still haunts his buildings, which are among the most celebrated in Mexico. Even casual visitors to his home in Mexico City leave tours awestruck by its beauty and sense of ceremony, intensely curious about the famously private man who dreamed it up and made it real. Barragán, who was, by all accounts, a quiet perfectionist, is often compared to a priest by those who knew him, and Mexicans take patriotic and almost spiritual pride in the fact that he is theirs.
After his death, in 1988, Mexican institutions proved unable—or unwilling—to purchase his professional archive, and legend has it that it was bought as an engagement present for Federica Zanco, an Italian art historian who was then the girlfriend of the head of Vitra, the Swiss furniture-manufacturing company. Since then, Zanco has studied and maintained the archive in Basel, while many—including Magid—have been denied access. (Zanco and her husband deny that it was an engagement present, and have not accepted the gift of the ring.) Magid has, for more than a decade now, created art based on intimate relationships she has forged with otherwise anonymous institutions: the Dutch secret service, a surveillance team in Liverpool, the New York City police. She has said that with her latest project, which in its entirety is called “The Barragán Archives,” she “entered into a new territory of privatized power.”
Since presenting Zanco with the diamond, last June, Magid has exhibited it in San Francisco and released a book of essays about the project. She had also been preparing for her newest exhibition, the product of nearly five years of work, “A Letter Always Arrives at Its Destination,” at the Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo (muac). The show, which is devoted entirely to “The Barragán Archives,” was publicly announced only a few weeks before the opening—an idiosyncratic press strategy meant to mitigate the potential for scandal. Over the past several months, the transformation of Mexico’s greatest architect into a diamond had gone from cocktail-party fodder among the local intelligentsia to national controversy. Hotel clerks knew about it; so did taxi drivers, suburban retirees, and my Airbnb host. They all had opinions.
Many of the critics and curators I spoke with in Mexico agreed that an article published last August by Juan Villoro, a prominent Mexican writer, had set the tone for many of the dozens that followed in the mainstream press. “The master of austere spaces is now a banal decoration,” Villoro wrote in a scathing op-ed. “What explains this grotesque act of recycling?” He went on to suggest that the diamond was “worthy of a horror museum.” The piece closed with the warning that, as a result of the art work, the nation’s mass graves might be soon viewed as jewelry stores.
In the next months, the project was called, among other things, “a sickening story” and an example of “neoliberal magical realism.” The diamond itself was referred to as a “tacky memento” and a “cheap souvenir.” Necrophilia was invoked and the words “barbaric” and “desecration” used. Barragán’s Catholic faith was cited; distant relatives emerged to announce themselves disgusted. Nobody seemed to object to the diamond on the same grounds: some thought it was sacrilege, others called it an act of arrogant American paternalism, and many believed it to be the result of an unforgivably negligent local government.
In February, an open letter was published, full-page, at a cost of two hundred thousand pesos (roughly ten thousand dollars), in a handful of Mexican papers and Web sites, calling for an investigation into the public servants who had allowed Barragán’s ashes to be exhumed, and for an audit to determine whether taxpayers’ funds had been used to exhume them. The letter included a request for a public apology from various people involved in the diamond’s production, and an invitation to “members of the Barragán family who supported Jill Magid to reconsider their behavior.” It closed with a plea that the diamond be pulverized and the dust returned to the “proper and dignified place where Barragán was buried and from which it should have never been removed.” The letter was signed by a miscellaneous group of seventy-three people, including distant family members, writers, nuns, and lawyers. A few days after the exhibition was announced, another open letter was published, this time written by a prominent architect, asking that the museum cancel the show. Instead, the institution organized a series of panel discussions to take place around the time of the opening.
Meanwhile, within much of the art world the project was interpreted as a political bellwether. muac’s chief curator, Cuauhtémoc Medina, was among the project’s staunchest defenders. “It’s curious that the intellectual and artistic community transforms its aesthetic unease or personal disgust into a longing for a type of patriarchal and pre-modern moral authority,” he wrote. Medina had seen the response to the art work as part of a disturbing pattern in which art-engaged audiences called for the censorship of unsettling ideas. Christopher Fraga, an anthropologist who studies Mexico City’s contemporary-art scene, compared the response to the work to the recent protests triggered by the inclusion of Dana Schutz’s painting of Emmett Till in the Whitney Biennial, in New York. “The idea that a tactical response to my being offended by an art work is to call for that art work not to exist is a very extreme reaction,” Fraga said. Othiana Roffiel, a Mexico City art critic, called the diamond “at once superfluous and indispensable, illusory and undeniable, mournful and promising” and questioned whether “the form, which offends so many people, was necessary to cause the effect that has been unleashed.”
Like Magid’s previous projects, “The Barragán Archives” relies on expository paperwork and legal forms. Magid keeps meticulous documentation of everything relating to her work; it is easy to imagine a future iteration of the project that incorporates the reactions of the Mexican press. Ever since presenting the ring to Zanco, Magid has carefully followed the articles that have been written about her, scouring Google News results, commissioning translations, at times wanting to respond but stopping herself from doing so. Her practice demands—and is even made of—her own emotional involvement with the people and structures of power she engages. She knew that the disputation was ultimately a symptom of the project’s success, but the attention made her anxious, nervous about the show’s reception and sometimes even about her physical safety. These feelings, too, were arguably a part of the work.
As had been arranged by the museum, on the night of the exhibition opening, Magid would discuss her work with two lawyers, a “cultural promoter,” a professor of aesthetics, and Medina. Ricardo Raphael de la Madrid, a political analyst and academic known in Mexico for his TV work, would serve as moderator. At the event, I sat in the second row, behind members of the Barragán family and among audience members wearing the global uniform of the artistic élite (interesting eyewear, colorful silk socks). Like Magid, I listened to the debate, which was conducted in Spanish, on my headphones via a real-time and occasionally florid translation. “There’s been an architecture of noise that has erected a citadel of controversy,” Medina said. Gesturing upward, to the floor of the museum where the exhibition would open that night, he continued, “Finally, people will be able to see if the Minotaur is really inside.”
The panelists were given strict instructions about who could speak when, and for the most part they followed them. Nonetheless, the air in the auditorium was uneasy and the conversation often aggressive. At different moments, the cultural promoter, a man named Cesar Cervantes, who is the heir to a taco chain and the owner of a Barragán-designed home, criticized Magid for not knowing Spanish, questioned her visa status, and suggested that she had been manipulated by members of the Barragán family. The bald, bespectacled professor of aesthetics accused Magid of “conniving” and said that she had “vulgarized Barragán’s legacy.” Magid is articulate, self-possessed, and petite; as the only woman onstage, she was dwarfed by her fellow-panelists. Although Medina defended her, and one of the two lawyers repeatedly declared the project legally sound, Magid appeared vulnerable when she was not the one speaking.
One premise of Magid’s work is that the ring is not and will never be for sale. It can be accepted only by Zanco and only in exchange for the archive. This did not prevent those onstage from asking repeatedly about the ring’s value and how much it cost to make. Magid refused to give a dollar amount but explained that prices are made available online by the company that created the diamond. When addressing claims that she had disrespected Barragán’s legacy, she shook her head. “Not only do I love his work, but the questions around his archive—what is accessible and what is not—affect the way his legacy goes forward,” she said. “Things that have come from your side of the table, include asking me to destroy an art work and to censor a show. These are demands, demands for silence. I am working against the questions of silence.” The audience erupted in cheers.
By this point, the discussion, which had been largely philosophical, had turned to what, exactly, the project had revealed about local customs regarding art preservation, the sufficiency of current laws to protect human remains, and Mexico’s responsibility to preserve its own culture—a question that was argued bitterly when Barragán’s professional archive left the country, years earlier. Magid started to look more relaxed. “I felt a great sense of relief,” she told me later. She was glad to know that the work’s provocations were working. The moderator wrapped up the discussion, and, just before Medina announced the exhibition open, he took a small bow. “So,” he said, “We invite you to see the Minotaur.”
Upstairs, the ring sat in a velvet box behind glass. In anticipation of the forthcoming crowds, museum guards were already in the galleries. They paced, waiting for the doors to open, and intermittently peered at the diamond, which was illuminated by a spotlight in an otherwise dark display case. As many visitors would remark later in the night, it looked quite small.