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A libration point is a point between two massive bodies where the gravitational forces between them are essentially in balance. It is like a hovering, being pulled between two things.
The work of Jill Magid (1973), in her own words, often begins with the submission of her body or identity to various processes of politicized systems. The systems she chooses are generally those concerned with observation and identification, such as public surveillance cameras and forensic methods. Magid enters into these systems in order to find another way of experiencing them. She uses the systems to explore them, and to explore herself in relation to them.
The work Auto Portrait Pending is shown in the front room of SMBA. For this work, Magid signed a contract with the Lifegem company requesting that she will become a diamond upon her death. Lifegem creates diamonds from the carbon of cremated human remains. Magid's diamond, as has been agreed upon in the contract, will be a brilliant cut with the weight of 1 carat. It will be set in a gold ring with a 1-carat gemstone setting. Until the diamond's creation, Auto Portrait Pending consists of the empty ring setting in a black ring box and a series of contracts.
Earlier this fall in Amsterdam, the ring was exhibited at Zazare Diamonds at the Weteringschans, together with the Lifegem contract, as part of the exhibition ADAM organized by Smart Project Space. The ring with its empty setting sat in a Zazare showcase, in a quiet corner at the back of the frontroom where Zazare shows its jewellery. The contract and preamble were shown in a separate showcase, designed in the Zazare house style especially for the occasion.
In response to a standard question by a Lifegem official whether she had special wishes concerning her future transformation, Magid wrote a preamble which she added to the official contract. This personal document states (among other things): "I realize you can promise nothing. I may contain impurities. If the impurities inside me prevent my diamond growth, you may infuse my carbon with other natural carbon. While I prefer to be pure, I permit you to taint me. [...] Once I am a diamond, you will identify me as a diamond. Inspect me. Grade me. Deliver me. My beneficiary is waiting. With Full Consent, Jill S. Magid."
At SMBA the work is completed by the Beneficiary Agreement. Magid: "The beneficiary is usually the loved one. The husbands gets the wife, the wife the husband, etcetera. I specify the beneficiary as a collector. As is stated in the contract: it will be either a private person with a substantial art collection, or an accredited art institution with a substantial art collection. The beneficiary is obliged to place the artwork on permanent display as part of his collection. A challenge will be how well the project is enacted and upheld by the Beneficiary once the diamond is created. I like the idea of the Museum of Modern Art in NY acquiring the work and displaying it in their permanent collection. For my family, this is something that is not so easy to deal with. My father asked me: 'Do you want me to go to the MOMA to visit you? How can I possibly visit you there?' Normally the remains of a cremated body weigh about 16 to 20 ounces. I give the company 8 ounces, which is the amount needed to create a diamond, and my family can do with the rest as they wish. At the beginning of the Beneficiary Agreement, the funeral and the artwork are specified as completely separate things."
Can you say something about the meaning of this artwork?
"For me, a successful or meaningful work is one that is clear and simple; it offers enough space for its meaning to multiply, to have different layers of meanings. With Auto Portrait Pending, I felt this.
Auto Portrait Pending is a work that occurs in two stages. Each stage has its own contract. The first contract is with Lifegem; it states my agreement to become a diamond. The second contract is about the work as a portrait, about how it is to be displayed in the museum or art collection. Showing the project at Zazare diamond factory is different from showing it at the Bureau. In the jewellery store setting, the 'pending' diamond evoked metaphors related to commercial value and exchange – the diamond as a symbol of love, immortality, value and status. The absence of the diamond in its ring-setting was emphasized by the grand display of jewels around it. Shown in the SMBA, the work becomes more clear as portrait. It raises questions about representations, and about what it means for an artist to become an art object, intended for display in an art institution. According to the agreement, I have to co-sign the contract with the Beneficiary. This ads a layer of vulnerability. How will this agreement tie me to the Beneficiary? I imagine it will be like having a patron or enacting some kind of post-life marriage."
How serious is this? What does a diamond signify to you? The diamond is loaded with all kind of symbolic meanings.
"To be clear, the portrait is the diamond in combination with the related texts. The contracts give the diamond its specific context. It is not that I want to be a diamond. And it is not how I would memorize someone I have loved. This is where my personal life and my work separate. It is as it is with much of my work: I did not want the portrait to be a metaphor. It was necessary to make a real commitment; I felt that the ramifications of the work would be stronger.
Is there a critical layer, or message, to this art work?
"A provocative issue, for me, concerns the desire to fetishize your love for someone in a concrete object. It is an amazing desire, but I think perhaps a failure of a desire: to believe that, because a diamond symbolizes love, it can actually embody or become this love. Also I think the work provokes critical thinking on death and memorabilia, on the memorialization of death. I made the piece as a portrait to be collected and displayed in a museum or an art collection. Essentially, as the artist I become the art object. You could see it as a performance or an extension of body art.
On the one hand you say that your work is not metaphorical. You want it to be real. On the other hand, you find it hard to separate stories from reality. What is the relationship between fiction and reality in your work?
" The main reason I often use myself in my work is: who is going to know what this experience is like if I myself don't know what it is like? I don't know if it is fiction or not, I am just doing it. I use myself as a tool in order to explore a system. It is important that, at a certain point, there is a lack of control, that the structure, the mechanism that I started up, takes over. Then there can be a negotiation. To me this is where part of the beauty of the artwork lies."
In the piece you did for the Liverpool Biennial you had yourself observed by surveillance cameras and by the local police. In the video film that you made from the material of the surveillance cameras, the relationship between yourself and the policeman watching you is mysterious, it is almost a love affair. The roles of subject and object were reversed, there was a switching back and forth between the two.
"It was like a game, someone throws a ball and the other keeps it in play: who is in control? Who will win? It was a virtual seduction, played out for and through the cameras, sexual as well as conceptual.
Many viewers of the Liverpool piece said that the 'girl in the red coat' seemed to be everywhere in the city. So then I wondered: is it possible to do the opposite? Can you remain present while being absent? How do you document a disappearance?
I became interested in the concept of forensics and specifically in a process called cognitive interviewing. The cognitive interview is used by the forensic artists, police and the FBI on an eyewitness about an incident or a suspect. Rather than getting short answers or simple yes or no responses, this type of questioning challenges the witness to dig deeper into his memory. I began to use forensics, like the cognitive interview, to deal with my questions of presence.
I find the cognitive interview to be a potentially erotic process, because it forces the person who is interviewed to focus intensely on the subject. I rewrote the questions of the standard cognitive interview, like I often do with given texts, in this case stressing the erotic qualities. For example, for the work entitled Head I asked a forensic artist to make a 3D facial reconstruction of a subject in ecstasy. I provided her with the standard elements: a skull and a forensic report. The skull was produced from cat scans taken of my own skull in the radiology department at the Utrecht hospital. I also wrote the forensic report, using her categories and my descriptions. The head will be fully realized, with make-up, hair and seemingly real skin. The subject emerges, without of course, ever having met the forensic artist who made it."
What is it about being watched, being seen, being wanted, that is so important, or rather: how does this play a role in your work, what is its significance, in a broader context?
"When I perform in public, as opposed to acting in private, the space around me gets bigger; I can feel how people are responding to my actions, and see how they - both my actions and their reactions- effect the space around me and my position in it. I am seeking a dialogue, and that requires an other participant. The space between us becomes more loaded, more intense and delicate, in the presence of an audience. If there is no witness, there is no possibility for slippage, for negotiation, for an unforeseen registration. To become part of a system, to manipulate or twist it into something else, I must be actively engaged. If the system ignores me or fails to register my presence, I am essentially invisible to it. I am left as an observer, able only to make comments or to construct metaphors: to engage I must be recognized.
I think it is a powerful and political act to enable recognition, to become visible to a person, system or group (especially those in positions of authority) that has been oblivious or insensitive to your presence. Once visible, you are stronger and more vulnerable. When you can finally see each other, you can come to understand each other. Together, you can become something else. "
How narcissistic is your work?
"That depends what you mean by it. My work is not a mirror that says: this is what I am and this is what I show you. When a story is well-told it can be so personal that it becomes universal and people can experience it through the storyteller. I hope that this is the case with my work. I chose the subject that is closest to me and that I understand the least of: myself, my presence, and submitted it to the systems in question. It is not any more narcissistic than a self-portrait."
Your stories are about seduction.
“Rather they work along with it. This is a reason I asked the forensic artist to make the head in ecstasy. It is again a libration point: hovering between sex and death. It is like with all these famous paintings in art history of women in ecstasy, you never know whether they are dying or in rapture. I don't however want the work to go all the way, to a climax or resolution. I am interested in seduction for the sake of seduction: I want it to hover there as long as possible."
Janneke Wesseling. Amsterdam, October 2005. Printed in the Stedeljk Museum Bulletin.
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Jelle Bouwhuis Jane Farver Janneke Wesseling