There is a contemporary artist whose work has captured my attention for a while and whose sculptures are part of an installation that is currently taking place at the Madison Square Park in NYC. The show is called ‘This Land is Your Land” and it is by Chilean Ivan Navarro. Somewhere in between design, post-minimalism and sculpture, Navarro uses light to refer to the recent history of art (minimalism) but also to the recent history of Latin America. For example, in ‘You Sit, You Die’ (2002) he transformed a neon made beach chair into a reference to Pinochet’s widespread methods of torture. But this work looks beyond Navarro’s homeland: a sheet of printed paper, in place of a canvas seat, names each person executed in the state of Florida between 1924 to 2001.
His installation in 2011 at the Armory Show was brilliant for he enclosed Paul Kasmin’s stand with neon fences. The point was clear: politics (and art) come down to access. It was something that people could see but not enter. It was a knowing jab at the art fair phenomenon while, at the same time, he made a very academic point about the conditions under which the artistic movement he quotes was created. We must remember that minimalism depends on that same space that Navarro was fencing.
Although Ivan Navarro’s use of light and neon is an obvious reference to Dan Flavin’s work, his main inspiration is the Madi movement, led by a group of abstract artists in Argentina in the 1940s and specifically to the Hungarian born Argentine Gyula Kosice, who was an early adopter of neon and light as sculptural tools. ‘‘They never saw it as if it wasn’t scultpure. They always saw it as being connected to classical tradition’, Navarro says about the Argentine Madi.
Although Navarro was born in Santiago de Chile in 1972 and his nation’s history animates his art, the connections many critics have drawn are perhaps too obvious. His work is often discussed in relation to the bloody Chilean military coup of 1973 which uprooted a budding socialist government led by the democratically elected president Salvador Allende and replaced it with the ruthless dictatorship of Augusto Pinochet. Navarro’s fluorescence, from the point of view of the artist’s personal history refers to the instruments of torture used by the Chilean dictatorship and possibly by Americans in Guantanamo but that is not the only reference. They cannot be properly understood if not taking into account the artist negotiating his access to the New York art scene through his, rather too obvious, allusions to Bruce Naumann and Dan Flavin. The fact that he is allowed to speak about politics in such an allegorical way demands a previous allegiance to the canon of New York art. From an allegorical perspective his work seems to say that the market comes before politics if an artist wants to be paid attention in today’s art world.
Around 2009, Navarro’s Flavin-esque political allegories seemed to get to a stand still and I wondered in which direction he might go. Thus, since 2010, Navarro has been more and more interested in maps, floor plans and the landscape of New York City, in particular, where he lives. For the current installation in Madison Square Park he placed a set of three water towers each propped up on eight foo stilts. The idea came to him at the opening of the park’s show of works by Giuseppe Penone (‘Ideas of Stone’) Walking in the park, Navarro saw that it was surrounded by water towers crowing the buildings above. ‘I was interested in finding an icon or a symbol of the city’, he says. ‘And I felt the water towers were a pretty good one, especially because they are so particular to New York. It’s not something you see in Berlin or London’. The show’s title (‘This Land is Your Land’) is borrowed from a song by the American folk singer Woody Guthrie. This he links to Violeta Parra who, according to him, was the Chilean version of Woody Guthrie. He says: ‘She was the first person to make archives of folk music in Chile and that was so recently -only in the 1950s. There were no recordings before them’. What is the relationship between the title and the water tanks, I have no idea. What is the point of this installation? I don’t know. I just thought it was a good opportunity to talk about an artist whose work I find particularly interesting. Just a thought.