The Old Law said: thou shalt do; the New Law says: thou shalt will. It was the experience of an imperative demanding voluntary submission that led to the discovery of the Will, and inherent in this experience was the wondrous fact of a freedom that none of the ancient peoples–Greek, Roman, or Hebrew–had been aware of, namely, that there is a faculty in man by virtue of which, regardless of necessity and compulsion, he can say “Yes” or “No,” agree or disagree with what is factually given, including his own self and his existence, and that this faculty may determine what he is going to do.
—Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind
In its current incarnation Jill Magid’s transmigratory performance piece, Auto Portrait Pending (2005), consists of a gold ring with an empty setting in which, at the time of her death, a 1.o carat diamond made from the carbon of her cremated ashes will be placed. Regulating this potential interaction are three documents–a corporate contract, the artist’s preamble, and a private beneficiary contract–which, along with the ring and its box, “constitute the artwork” until the diamond is created. The rules thus stated Auto Portrait Pending is less a contractually defined object and more a kind of juridical dérive whose purpose it is to enliven and disrupt the unquestioning momentum that often elides our private and public personhood.
Seen against the background of her earlier works, such as Surveillance Shoe, Lobby 7, and Evidence Locker, Auto Portrait Pending continues an investigation into bodily distortion from the perspective of the state, however in this work the distorting mechanism is not a camera but a contract.
The above image is a still from Surveillance Shoe (2000). In this performance Magid wears a high heel shoe with a CCTV camera built in, whose images are displayed live on a hijacked public monitor in the lobby of the Harvard University Science Center. Describing this project and the “Gulliver Effect” created by the surveillance camera’s proximity to her body she writes:
Playing with the body as a gigantic object is a tactic made available to me through the lens of the surveillance camera. Due to its fish-eye lens and placement on the shoe, the surveillance camera alters the scale and proportion of the body. The wearer appears as a gigantic form in a warped perspective. The transformation of bodily scale in the video image are in continual flux. As body parts move closer or farther from the lens they become abstracted in unpredictable ways. The strange changes of my gigantic physique disturb any conventional representation of my body. (Magid 17)
It is along these lines and with a similar program of reclaiming a representation of her body that Auto Portrait Pending can be seen as an intervention and not a proposition. This distinction brings to mind Andrea Fraser’s Untitled (2003), whose racy annulment of proprietary distance between artist and collector is returned to in Magid’s work. In proposing to sell her ashes Magid’s contract is, like Fraser’s, antagonistic, though less aggressive because it enacts a less cultivated form of taboo. When, in Untitled, Fraser performs sexual intercourse with an unnamed collector on camera for a price that entitles him to both the intercourse and its documentation as Fraser’s work of art, a relationship is enacted in which control, indeed self-control, is surprisingly aligned with self-exposure.
Auto Portrait Pending, though similar in structure is quite different in tone. There is a hopeful, almost naive quality to its indecency that unlike Untitled does less to describe or literalize a current social dynamic than to stage a dramatic non-polemical alternative. Consequently, though it bears resemblance to work widely designated as Institutional Critique, Magid’s piece offers no pointed systematic analysis and as such seems incoherent or ineffectual when addressed as a kind of critique.
This is because Auto Portrait Pending promulgates one’s relationship to oneself as its primary locus of activity, and as such deals with only obliquely discursive metaphysical notions of equivalence. As such, the transformation of ashes to diamonds as an artwork is not, in Magid’s conception, bound to a community-specific or context-specific discourse but to a subjective narrative of self-realization.
In a related work from the following year, The Salem Diamonds, Magid proposed to create a memorial of 3,489 diamonds, each one signifying a deceased mentally ill patient whose unclaimed ashes, housed in corroding copper urns in the basement of the Oregon State Hospital would be used in its creation. This proposal, eventually presented to the state senate, was initially instigated by a newspaper article on the urns and its rather brutal photograph:
The image brought Magid to tears. The idea of those corroding urns locked away in a dark room for decade after decade made her think of a sad story in her own life. Her grandmother, as a young woman, had found a beautiful [15.03 carat] diamond ring on a city street and had locked it away in a safe deposit box while waiting and hoping for someone to claim it. (The Oregonian)
The story of her grandmother’s quasi-legal ownership presents the personal context for a catalytic frisson. Interjected into the collapsed space of private and public existence, Auto Portrait Pending and The Salem Diamonds retread the field of possibilities presented by a de facto inheritance. In Magid’s case that inheritance is not an object of unclear legal status but a legal status of unclear use.
In addition, the proselytic aspect of The Salem Diamonds does not negate the focus on self-relation that I believe grounds both works within a complex narrative of self-realization but instead declares the public nature of Magid’s intentions. Like the dérive which attempts to create authentic experiences by moving within, but not according to the rules of, a programmatic consumer/productivity focused urban plan, Magid’s interventions, though defined by their immediacy and disavowal of an overarching plan, are nonetheless broad in their conceived use.
Indeed a seemingly minor but essential aspect of Magid’s works involving crematory diamonds is that they can be seen, and indeed she presents them as such, to arise as projects after finding their preliminary existence in her life as dilemmas. In its manner of response, not to the underlying constructs of an institution or power structure, but to the inevitable legal decisions that must be made individually and by all, Auto Portrait Pending abolishes a specific complacency and attempts to rewrite it.
Only when seen with enough distance from the tempting supposition that it is a critique does the strangeness of Magid’s work and its proposed contract present itself. Her preamble for Auto Portrait Pending is a poem, a linguistic act awaiting its transmigration into a legal one: “Make me a diamond when I die. Cut me round and brilliant. Weigh me at one carat. Ensure that I am real.”
In her felicitous routes through the narrow channels of our legal system Magid presents a form of intervention which “regardless of necessity and compulsion…agrees[s] or disagree[s] with what is factually given, including [her] own self and [her] existence” (Arendt 68). It is an intervention, which, like the dérive, does not put up a bulwark but instead imputes the ability to rewrite a system via the poetic impropriety of its use:
The human body has been used throughout history as a primary unit of measurement. How we approach architecture and the way in which we use objects rely heavily on the scale of our bodies in relation to them. By representing objects in a different scale, such as gigantic or in miniature, one can have the power to disturb the conventional ways in which this object is viewed. (Magid 17)
Magid’s use of the law as a mechanism of representation presents a model for public engagement and self-realization that further amalgamates personal and political activity. In representing herself, her own unit of measurement, before the law as an undecided creature, one of cacophonous taxonomy, she raises the discomforting specter of her statutory body metastasizing while her natural body contracts to a point.
Arendt, Hannah. The Life of the Mind. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978. Print.
“EDITORIAL ‘the Salem Diamonds’ Deserve More Respect.” The Oregonian: 0. May 11 2006. ProQuest. Web. 29 May 2013 .
“In Conversation: Andrea Fraser.” Brooklyn Rail. February 22 2008. Web. 29 May 2013. <http://www.brooklynrail.org/2004/10/art/andrea-fraser>
Magid, Jill. “Auto Portrait Pending.” Jill Magid. Jill Magid. Web. 22 May 2013.
Magid, Jill. Monitoring Desire. MS Thesis. Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Boston, 2005. Online.