Art Seen: International

THE PROPOSAL // EXPLORING THE BODY IN AND OF JILL MAGID’S ART

By Shelby Heitner

True to its name, the documentary The Proposal (2019) superficially seems to follow the plot of a 19th century romance novel: initially at odds with one another, two central figures embark on an epistolary courtship despite the myriad of obstacles that keep them apart. After she can stand it no longer, one of the lovers prostrates herself in front of the family to ask permission to pop the question. At long last, the foolhardy lover travels across the sea, reunites with her beloved, and proposes. In this version, however, you can expect to find an exhumed corpse, an evil Swiss furniture company, and, of course, a profusion of contemporary art.

Through ideation, to contract negotiation, and execution, The Proposal traces the film’s director, New York-based visual artist Jill Magid, through what is perhaps her career’s notorious magnum opus: the creation of a ring made of famed Mexican architect Louis Barragan’s exhumed ashes. The predecessor to the film, an exhibition and ring also dubbed The Proposal, produced quite the media stir when it was first shown at Kunst Halle Sankt Gallen in 2016; following the piece’s gallery debut, Magid came under vociferous scrutiny over the morality of appropriating an artist’s body in service of her own art.

Jill Magid, The Proposal, 2016. Courtesy: the artist; LABOR, Mexico City; RaebervonStenglin, Zurich and Untilthen, Paris; Photo: Kunst Halle Sankt Gallen, Stefan Jaeggi

Despite this controversy, The Proposal (2016), the exhibition, is quite similar to the other works in Magid’s ouvre; the piece is predicated on exposing contradictions between ethics, law, and bureaucracy via mixed media sculpture, performance, and writing. Indeed, in this piece, Magid brilliantly exploits and showcases an irresolvable contradiction in the morality of art: what ownership of an artist’s body of work means and who should bare that right postmortem. What differentiates The Proposal, however, is also what makes this piece the paragon of a documentary subject: the work is arguably Magid’s most effective critique because the medium of the ring strongly embodies the substance of the critical idea in form that simultaneously strongly resonates with and shocks the viewer. While those familiar with Magid’s art will be aware of exactly how the film ends before the first shot rolls, this portending knowledge should not be a deterrent. Rest assured, The Proposal still effortlessly executes a sumptuous balance of superb cinematography and shrewd philosophical inquiry.

As is true for many first time directors, it is clear that Magid does lack some intuition on narrative pacing in film. Her daily rituals often drag for the tens of minutes, while her other art is glossed over very quickly, if shown at all (with the exception of the ring). This elongation of narrative, however, does effectively give the viewer the vicarious thrill of being an artist in all its monotony, yet also in all of its glory and notoriety. As I was taken so subtly—and occasionally painstakingly—through every step of Magid’s artistic process, watching the film evoked a genuine feeling of discovery within me: through vicarious experience, I felt as though I had the idea to create a ring from Barragan’s body in tandem with Magid. This subtle feat is perhaps the most exciting part of the watching experience.

Jill Magid, Still from The Proposal, 2019. Courtesy: the artist.

Even so, the structure of the narrative in The Proposal did leave some room for doubt in its diegetic authenticity. The stark good/bad dichotomy between Magid and the owner of Barragan’s archive, a figure who often appears in the film as the prohibitor of Magid’s creativity, felt both forced and in the service of making Magid’s art appear to serve a higher good, leaving me with a lingering suspicion of subjectivity bordering on skew. I do not believe Magid intentionally fluffed her narrative to make herself and her art look heroic—she gives too much screen time to negative criticism of her work for that to be the case. I do believe, however, that the devolution of the narrative into this conventional fiction trope can be attributed to Magid’s directoral inexperience.

Where Magid as a director does truly shine is within long contemplative pauses in the narrative. Free from her second-hat role as on-screen personality, Magid’s deference to the architect is elucidated most clearly when she is offscreen. The Proposal utilizes long takes and wide shots that seem reminiscent of nature documentary, and work wonderfully to allow the viewer to observe Barragan’s buildings ability to play with light and darkness, nature and construction, constrained and empty space. In these moments, I truly understand Barragan inspiration on Magid and why she refers to his work in the film as poetic architecture. Put simply, the sumptuous beauty and quiet harmony of Barragan’s structures in The Proposal is undeniable.

In this way, The Proposal is yet another notch in Magid’s catalogue of successful work inspired by the architect. Despite the film’s moments of protracted pacing, I left The Proposal with a longing to research more into Barragan. It was the same feeling of excited interest that I had when I first encountered Magid’s art, and a feeling that elucidated that the film in toto was an enriching and worthwhile watch.


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