Massively influential Mexican architect Luis Barragán believed that “any work of architecture which does not express serenity is a mistake.” Yet there’s no light without darkness. His modernist sculptures, made out of raw materials like wood or clay, are composed of clean lines that at times titter on the edge of symmetry; tranquil, seemingly inert surfaces that hint at the emotional, organic turmoil within. His Fuente de Los Amantes sculpture exemplifies his work: brown and pink blocks connected by a pistol-shaft-like duct that harbors gushing, ever-flowing water.
Artist and filmmaker Jill Magid’s brilliant documentary The Proposal, akin to Barragán’s work, has a serene quality to it – it’s crisply told, elegantly shot and poetically narrated – yet beneath all the tranquility hides an impassioned, radical statement on the democratization of art. It may not delve too deeply into the life and work of the architect, but that’s not the point. Magid doesn’t rush to make her intentions clear, nor does she force her values upon us or defend her contentious project and opinions. She simply shows us how the project – the titular proposal – came to be, what drove her, and the effect of the end result.
“…Magid embarks on a journey to make his copyrighted work – and trademarked name – public.”
Upon Barragán’s death in 1988, the majority of his work was sold to and locked away by the Vitra Design Museum in Switzerland, rigidly protected by archive gatekeeper Federica Zanco, also an architectural historian and editor of his book La Revolución Callada. Sharing Zanco’s fascination for the architect, Magid embarks on a journey to make his copyrighted work – and trademarked name – public. Zanco is immune to her polite inquiry letters, yet not to her charm; as the two become pen pals, Magid involves Barragán’s relatives to concoct an offer, in the form of a grandiose art project, that the unyielding Zanco can’t possibly refuse. What her proposal entails I’ll let you discover – let’s just say that, unless you already know about it, I recommend you go in blind; Magid’s doc will sneak up on you.
Hypnotized by the filmmaker’s soothing delivery, I found myself suddenly feeling uncomfortable at one crucial point, questioning the ethics and validity of her proposal, as well as the method of delivering it. Of course, that’s what Magid intended. Her perseverance, passion, confidence and remarkable focus are admirable, to say the least. Magid’s interaction with the enigmatic, barely-glimpsed Zanco – the heart of the film – fascinatingly treads the line between “friendship” and “negotiation,” leading to a culmination of sorts in a small Swiss café. “You have turned speculation into art, and me into a character of fiction,” Zanco writes to Magid afterward. Indeed.
The Proposal explores the ethics behind copywriting art, but it also sees its artist go to radical extremes that some may find equally questionable. It will provoke discussions and arguments aplenty. What’s hard to argue is that the documentary itself is nothing short of spectacular: a sublime and unforgettable work of art. Barragán would be proud.
The Proposal (2019) Directed by Jill Magid.
10 out of 10 stars