In a somewhat poetic proposal, Jill Magid, the American artist, offered Federica Zano, owner and archivist of the Barragan Foundation in Switzerland, a two-carat diamond ring made from ashes from Barragan’s cremation, in exchange for returning Barragan’s professional archive to Mexico.
This gesture was the pinnacle of an art project that “posed fundamental questions about the consequences and implications of converting cultural legacy into private corporate property.” Magid’s work, titled “A Letter Always Arrives at its Destination,” held an exhibition at the University Museum of Contemporary Art at the UNAM.
I recently visited the exhibition and bumped into an acquaintance in the second room. She was overwhelmed by the number of pieces in the exhibit but had not seen the famed and controversial ring, and asked me if I’d seen it. I responded that it was also my first time at the exhibit but that it would probably be in the last room. She left abruptly without saying goodbye. As is common with contemporary art, this piece had caused fierce debate; in this case, it was about its origin. The dispute surrounding the piece overshadowed its content, but someone has to say it: Luis Barragán's ashes are not more important than his life's work.
When I arrived in the last room, I was pleased to see the ring mounted unpretentiously, similar to the other pieces surrounding it. To review again the topic that the project explores: “the consequences and implications of converting cultural legacy into private corporate property,” I ask myself, where is the indignation for the fact that this important part of Mexico´s architectural heritage is jealously guarded abroad?
A lot has been spoken about the Barragán family, who, previously unaware of the project, were shocked to find out about the piece´s contents. But my intention is not to discuss them, or the ring, or the Catholic faith to which Barragán professed, which has made recent headlines. But rather, I want to focus on the Robles Castillo House, his first formal piece of architecture that now is a taco stand, and the rest of his “lost” work in Guadalajara. The real scandal is that the Mexican government hasn't acquired and protected his work as architectural heritage and that his professional archive abroad by Zanco has been rebranded as Luis Barragan (without the accent).
It is worth asking while we discuss the ethics of converting ashes into diamonds: who should guarantee that we are not losing something more valuable?