Interview | Daniel Garza-Usabiaga, the implication of the Barragán archive

By Pamela Ballesteros | August 2016

Luis Barragán in Context was a 2008 exhibition in which Daniel Garza-Usabiaga rearticulated an archive through pieces from various collections that he brought together in the Museum of Mexico City as an overview of Barragán’s production and its development through time.

Based on this approach and the concerns sparked by Jill Magid’s The Proposal, the following conversation explores this fiction and the role of archives in contemporary practice.

You had your first encounter with the Barragán archive with this exhibition, for which you found sketches, models, paintings, and any work or references available in Mexico. How did this research come about? Were you in contact with the Barragan Foundation in Switzerland?

That year, with the support of Guillermo Santamarina, Cristina Faesler invited me to organize an exhibition on Luis Barragán in the Museum of Mexico City where I was the director. I knew the archives from the architect’s studio were in Switzerland and that the Barragan Foundation was preparing a catalogue raisonné of his work. I was aware that the development of a detailed catalogue implied largely working behind closed doors to maintain the archive’s integrity. This is something common in this type of work. That’s why I knew loans could not be made. At the same time, the Museum of Mexico City didn’t have the budget to be able to cover the costs of transporting materials between continents.

From the start, apart from the curatorial proposal, the exhibition tried to articulate an alternate archive on Barragán. The architect’s former clients, friends, private collectors, foundations, and institutions for different reasons have materials that could be very important and even allow for interesting research. Various individuals who documented the condition of many of Barragán’s constructions at that time also collaborated in the exhibition. This was an attempt to enrich this alternate archive. Since the exhibition was presented, several of these buildings have been demolished or irreparably modified.

I contacted the Barragan Foundation by e-mail in relation to this project. I explained the project to them, that it was a non-profit endeavor, part of a research project, and that the institution’s budget was limited. At no time did they request economic compensation, payment of exhibition or reproduction rights, nor did they interfere in any way in the development of the project. After being in the Museum of Mexico City, the exhibition was taken by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and sent, as far as I know, to South Korea and Australia. I think it was also in Singapore, although I was never told about it. Also as far as I know, the Ministry never received any request for payments of this type from the Barragan Foundation.

So this demonstrated that an exhibition could position a coherent narrative without necessarily possessing a physical archive.

Not only curatorial work, [but also] research in its own right. Many artists and architects, over the centuries, have passed away without leaving an archive and this at no time has conditioned analysis, research, speculation, and interest in their work. It’s a matter of the dedication, inventiveness, and originality of a good researcher or historian. For example, there’s no specific study on the modern apartments and houses that Barragán built in Mexico City prior to 1948, considering that this period is of vital importance for an understanding of the development of his production after that year. The buildings are here, many in deplorable conditions, but for that reason they’re virtually in their original state. Many of the owners also still have the original plans of the buildings and copies of others are in the Max Cetto Archive in the Universidad Autónoma de México-Azcapotzalco (Max Cetto worked and collaborated with Barragán on several of these works). Extant photos from the time are on the Internet. In other words, practically everything needed to conduct relevant research on the architect’s work is here. This is just one example, but obviously there are others.

The positions in response to The Proposal have been reactionary in different ways. One has to do with the permanence of the Barragán archive in the hands of an individual, Federica Zanco, abroad. What does the call for its repatriation respond to? A call that has even disrupted the foundation’s work to the extent of understanding this acquisition as an embargo, when in reality we’re talking about private property.

It seems to me that any call for repatriation of patrimony of this type (a legally acquired twentieth-century archive) is highly anachronistic; it makes me feel like I’m living in the 1970s. The sort of nationalism that surrounds it is also anachronistic and, for me, it’s problematic to seek to revive this sort of spirit especially if one takes into account a global context characterized by exacerbated and irrational patriotism. And clearly, this matter can’t be labeled “colonialism” (as was the case of the looting of Pre-Columbian material culture during the colonial period) because it started from a commercial transaction. The Barragán archive was legally acquired in New York by its current proprietors; it was not usurped. We’re in the twenty-first century. Nowadays the generalized rule should be the digitalization of the archives. This indeed would be accessibility and not that they return some documents to “us.”

I understand Jill Magid’s project as a fiction, the construction of a “love triangle,” as she describes it. That’s her artistic proposal. The problem arises when that fiction begins to take on the character of reality and to be seen as fact. To think that one can achieve the repatriation of an archive with a ring and hope that this happens is, frankly, naïve. The Barragan Foundation has made it clear that this is not going to happen. In the same way, thinking that many individuals in this country would not be offended by digging up and turning the remains of a dead person into a diamond also arises from a naiveté that makes it hard to believe.

I mention the presence of this fiction —and the way in which it has apparently invaded the field of reality— because I think that it has given rise to a lot of misinformation and it has fostered perceptions that are not entirely true. One, for example, is the generalized idea about reproduction rights for Barragán’s work. To clarify a series of misunderstanding surrounding this question, in the first place, one has to point out that Barragán stipulated in his will that the rights for his work were inalienable to the archive. In other words, unlike many other local artists or architects, Barragán did not leave the rights to his work to a member of his family as executor. Today, this is something highly revealing, because it makes it clear that the architect did not think of his family as the suitable party to supervise and make decisions concerning his legacy. Whoever acquired the archive would ultimately be the proprietor of the rights over the work. Always.

As I was saying, the Barragan Foundation did not interfere or make any requests with regard to the Museum of Mexico City’s exhibition. Later, I contacted them when I was working in the Museum of Modern Art (in Mexico City); the museum published a facsimile version of Cetto’s book Arquitectura moderna en México/Modern Architecture in Mexico (1961), which has some historical photos of Barragán’s work. Again they supported the project without requesting any payment. I’m also aware of the fact that the same was the case for the exhibition Desafío a la estabilidad. Procesos artísticos en México 1952–1967 (Challenge to Stability: Artistic Processes in Mexico 1952–1967) that was on display in the Museo Universitario Arte Contempoáneo. In none of these cases, as far as I know, were reproduction rights paid nor for the material used in the exhibition, for images in the catalogues, for promotional material, or for anything. There are lots of contemporary artists, both Mexican and from abroad, who have done works inside or based on Barragán’s constructions; the images of many of these projects have been publicized, printed numerous times, and have been sold, and as far as I know, they were not charged either.

Then why attempt to “recover” something for no reason? Why return it to Mexico? To whom?, if this project in some way attested to governmental lack of control over cultural patrimony.

It’s hard for me to understand it. This is another misunderstanding that has been generated by fiction. In fiction, we’re waiting for the Barragán archive to arrive and no one has even cleaned out a drawer to begin to put the papers into it. Do the conditions exist to receive it and the money to continue to safeguard it? The truth is that Mexico has many limitations, principally economic, to acquire and preserve archives. Obviously there are institutions that acquire noteworthy archives, such as the Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes, the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, the Instituto Tecnológico de Estudios Superiores de Monterrey, the Televisa Foundation, among many others. Nevertheless, these institutions have their limitations. Preserving an archive is extremely costly and acquiring one and not preserving it in the optimum conditions possible places it at risk. There are many archives that have been lost because they have not had the optimum conditions of temperature, humidity, or proper and regular conservation. Also for not having restricted access.

Much has been said of how local researchers don’t have access to the archive and what this means for them, and for that abstraction called the “people of Mexico” obviously, who seek to repatriate this archive. Who are these researchers? The fiction that has been established as a reality presents a scenario in which it would seem that there’s a line of researchers (waiting) outside the archives. In all honesty, we have many archives and the majority of them are never studied. In this country, at least in the field of art history, there’s very little research done on the basis of archives. This is evident in the considerable number of research projects on art carried out in this country based on theoretical revisions —mainly based on the legacy of continental philosophy or recently other fashionable trends in academia, such as post-colonial studies— vs. analysis based on archival work. There are many cases of the former, but few of the latter.

It would also be interesting to think of an opposite scenario. Let’s imagine that now, suddenly and out of nowhere, an individual appears in the name of Germany, Guatemala, the United States, or Spain demanding the repatriation of an archive of an artist or architect born in one of these countries and that for whatever reason is in Mexico. I can’t even imagine the indignation this would cause. The undertaking that Magid has embarked upon is based on another fiction concerning the interest of Mexicans in having the archive returned. Is there really a generalized interest in the archive? When was undertaking these measures discussed? Who endorsed them? Was anyone consulted? In this sense it would be worth asking Magid who are the Mexicans represented. If they do not exist, Magid’s work betrays a sort of “American unconscious” that is expressed, in this case, in the need to save, redeem, rescue, and say what should or should not be done, very particular to people in the United States. Her concern for our cultural patrimony is appreciated, but, in truth did anyone ask her or do we even need to resolve this problem? This is not a xenophobic comment, on the contrary, I believe that it’s a cultural trait. We Mexicans also have a distinctive unconscious, in this case it can be discerned in the largely uncritical way with which the fiction upholding this project has been embraced and that would fit perfectly with the plot of a local TV melodrama.

The subjects of mysticism and religion are common when speaking of Barragán. How does Magid’s project relate to these questions?

No one can deny that there’s currently an economy surrounding Barragán that’s been developed since he began to receive greater critical attention since more or less ten years ago. This economy capitalizes on multiple questions and factors, for example, in speculation on his homosexuality. Also on Barragán’s so-called “mysticism”; the architect is always presented as a religious man, of Catholic faith, exalting his religious architecture, etc. Magid’s work obviously overlooks any question related to mysticism and, in fact, is situated in a problematic relation with the Catholic faith that, as is repeated incessantly each time Barragán is referred to, was a sort of distinctive feature of the individual that she’s exploring.

According to Catholicism, the integrity of the body is fundamental to what’s known as “holy burial,” “eternal rest,” or whatever it may be. Not long ago the Catholic Church began to allow the cremation of bodies (the second half of the twentieth century); nevertheless, it doesn’t permit the ashes to be scattered. This is coherent with the idea of the body’s integrity. Within the imaginary of this faith, the separation of the ashes is equivalent to exhuming a coffin, cutting off part of the corpse, and taking it. From this perspective, Magid’s project reveals, at least and in the best of cases, a serious lack of awareness of the individual in question and also scorn for his memory.

This strikes me as a contradiction if one takes into account that the project is supposedly trying to redeem or recover his legacy. What I see is a very instrumental thought that’s operative where the ends justify the means and it is here where I note the intent to capitalize on polemics as the start of the project. In a country with a culture with a strong Catholic tradition this was inevitably going to cause at least a raised eyebrow and more likely a commotion on principle. Thinking this would not happen, again, shows a level of incredible naiveté or simply pronounced unfamiliarity. Juan Villoro was the first to mention this type of contradiction in Magid’s fiction, as well as her evident unawareness both of the figure of the architect and the social context of this country. He underscored the banality and indifference represented by exhumation in the project surrounding Barragán’s ashes in comparison to the brutal reality that many live in this country on a daily basis.

Inevitably it’s an attractive display for detractors of contemporary art. The piece attempted to be a tool of negotiation while trying to question the commercial interests of art institutions, but ultimately it became a fetishized object. To what extent are alterations of this kind, accompanied by discourse, supported from an artist’s position?

The central object in the project The Proposal, a diamond ring made of organic material, is not a new resource on the local contemporary art scene. In 2012 Fritzia Irizar did the piece Sin título (Naturaleza de imitación) (Untitled [Imitation Nature]), composed of an artificial diamond made of hair donated by a Tarahumara community, one of the most marginalized groups in Mexico. Accompanied by a study on nutrition done on the hair, the piece contrasted extremes in the distribution of wealth and was inextricably connected to the existence of extreme poverty in relation to wealth. This seems interesting to me, in contrast, Magid’s diamond instead strikes me as problematic. And the fiction surrounding it even more so.

I would like to imagine that if Marx were alive he would choose the moment of the presentation of the engagement ring as an ideal example, almost like a textbook illustration, to discuss some of his ideas on alienation and false consciousness. The fiction, in this case Magid’s, also gloats over the concept of the personal item. It seems very odd to me that in most of the notes written on this project the fiction is repeated verbatim. Basically: a woman marries a “millionaire” in exchange for an archive and that, through a ring, she will return it to its country of origin. I’m not very adept at discussing questions related to gender, but in my opinion, this is a very strange image of women. And this perspective is reinforced by some collaborators on Magid’s project, such as Cuauhtémoc Medina, who describes Zanco’s relationship with the archive as “quasi-erotic” when most likely he’d never spoken with the scholar to find out about her work in relation to the archive.

None of the media has devoted more than a couple of lines on the academic career of Federica Zanco, who has a doctorate in Art History from the University of Venice and was a collaborator at Domus, among other things. Nor has any mention been made of the work done in recent years on the basis of the Barragan Foundation archive, primarily the exhibition Luis Barragán. La revolución callada (Luis Barragán: The Silent Revolution)which was presented in six cities worldwide, including Mexico City. All these factors that could explain a genuine interest in Barragán’s work have the academic credentials for a proper management of the archives. Nevertheless, what’s presented and promoted is the highly specific image of a woman, dominated by material whims. In this sense, I see Magid’s diamond as the opposite of Irizar’s approach. While her attempts to shatter certain perceptions surrounding the cultural understanding of the diamond (as an item of personal wear), that of Magid seems to reinforce them through her narrative: she emphasizes alienation, underscores questions of the value of change, and equates human relations with material transactions.

Obviously a project of this sort, which seems to wager on polemics from the start, is a gift for certain participants who condemn and look down on different forms of contemporary art in this country. With this, I’m not referring only to the habitual critics we all know, instead to the impact the entire debate can now have, so it seems that this has become a discussion on the issue of patrimony.

I return to the subject of the archive, which seems to be the most salvageable part of this fiction. The fate that followed that of Barragán has been the same for many others. What does it entail for the legacy of an artist to be the property of a private party? What does it imply for it to remain abroad? With this I’d also like to know your perspective on the condition of archival activity in contemporary practice in Mexico.

The archives of a number of Mexican artists or architects are outside of Mexico. All or part of the archives of Lola Álvarez Bravo, Max Cetto, Félix Candela, Ricardo de Robina (who was a genius, by the way), Miguel Covarrubias, and Jean Charlot, to name just a few, aren’t here. What are we going to do about this? Request the repatriation of all archives? This would be logical. Why would Barragán’s be more important than that of Covarrubias or that or any other? Because (he won) the Pritzker? Seriously? Here it’s interesting to think, again, why this polemic is taking place around Barragán and not around another of these individuals. There’s a market surrounding Barragán, an entire economy, which has been formed in the last decade and that guarantees a visibility and attention that other deceased Mexican artists or architects don’t have, with the obvious exception of Frida Kahlo.

When an institution or an individual acquires an archive, the material enters the domain of private property. In an ideal scenario, what then happens if the acquisition was made by a foundation or a public or private institution (such as a university or research center) is to begin an archival and cataloguing process. These procedures can take a long time, depending on the resources of each institution. During this time, in most cases, the archive remains closed or has extremely limited access. I’ve faced this type of situation on more than one occasion, in Mexico and abroad, and it can be very frustrating. Nevertheless, I know and understand these procedures given my work as a historian and I can’t expect an institution to work at the pace of my expectations or needs; it would be ridiculous.

I also know that during these cataloguing processes new perspectives and knowledge can be generated, mainly if they are carried out by a historian. Archival work isn’t only about putting papers in coherent order; it’s an academic activity that involves different conceptual apparatuses that make it possible to establish the foundations for the proper study of an archive. And all this time of work, conceptualization, interpretation, and study is highly important, above all if the interest is to advance and develop new knowledge. The criticism of the Barragan Foundation in this sense shows the lack of understanding of archives and archival work in this country, its procedures, and the time it can take to catalogue, organize, and interpret an archive. I feel that it also shows a type of scorn for this academic and intellectual work and it shows hostility to an active research center.

According to the notes and comments that I’ve read and heard about Magid’s project, it would seem that a large group of Mexicans work in archives on a daily basis and that they’ve organized at least one in their lives. For many it seems to be very simple work, almost a weekend project, but this isn’t the case.

In Mexico it’s not easy to do research. In fact, a historian knows it: investigation of a documentary nature implies navigating countless obstacles. There are many closed archives, difficult to gain access to because they’re still the patrimony of heirs, or because paperwork and bureaucracy is required to visit them. In this sense, whether an archive is in Mexico or abroad is no guarantee of access to it. Now that it’s known the Barragán archive won’t return to Mexico, it’d be wonderful if all the people who have shown indignation and concern for the state of this sort of collection—wherever they may be—focus on safeguarding the integrity of the archives that are in this country and that need many volunteers, resources, and time to be properly organized, restored, and digitalized.

It’s also important to mention that archives aren’t places for the entire public. We know they’re not popular spots; archives are a place for specialists. Therefore, the majority offer restricted access, with very clear policies: [for] graduate students, academics, or researchers who belong to a research center, process an official ID, get institutional letters, schedule appointments, and so forth. In most cases, researchers approach an archive seeking answers to specific questions, specific quests. This is the purpose of a proper cataloguing system, and this, as I mentioned, takes time and can be quite costly.