The Dark Side of Light
Ivan Navarro’s Emotionally Charged Minimalism
Ivan Navarro is one of the most important young contemporary Chilean artists. He is known for his sculptures made of fluorescent tubes that politically undermine the Minimalist style. Works by the artist are currently on view in the exhibition "Beuys and Beyond – Teaching as Art" currently touring Latin America. Oliver Koerner von Gustorf talked with Ivan Navarro in his New York studio.
||Death Row is a work by Ivan Navarro that shined brightly in the Chilean pavilion at the last Venice Biennale. Thirteen glass-and-steel doors, thirteen entrances or exits through which visitors looked into seeming infinite light tunnels composed of mirrors and neon light in all the colors of the spectrum– a kind of transcendent rainbow. Navarro's work from 2006 unites many elements that are typical of his oeuvre: light and death, Minimalist reduction and narrative, conceptual rigidity and bitter irony. This is particularly apparent against the background that the installation is a sort of response to Ellsworth Kelly. In 1969, the American Hard Edge painter employed the exact same color spectrum in his series Spectrum V, which consisted of 13 monochrome canvases.
Kelly's Minimalist paintings can also be imagined as doors – 13 radiant rectangles that open the space due to the perception of color. Four decades later, Navarro built actual doors, complete with handles and locks, and although the objects are "flat" like pictures, they look as though they lead through a tunnel of light into another dimension. Navarro’s Death Row looks like a technoid translation of Kelly: It is more seductive, colder, and harder, and breaks with abstraction and pure geometry. Navarro belongs to a young international generation of artists that is critically reinterpreting the artistic language of Minimalism. But unlike young U.S. stars such as Sterling Ruby and Banks Violette, the Chilean artist (who has been living in New York since 1997) does not infiltrate the aseptic formal vocabulary of Minimal Art with expressive or violent gestures. Rather, he picks up on the dogma that everything personal should be suppressed, on American Minimal artists' predilection for standardization and industrial aesthetics in order to engage with political, economic, and social oppression and violence in a very topical way.
Works by Navarro are currently on view in the group exhibition Beuys and Beyond – Teaching as Art at the Museo de Artes Visuales (MAVI) in Santiago de Chile, where works by Beuys and his students are juxtaposed with contemporary Chilean art. Although Navarro, who was born in 1972, has in recent years repeatedly alluded to great American Minimal and Concept artists such as Dan Flavin or Dan Graham, an integral aspect of his works is their references to recent Chilean history, to his growing up under the military junta of Augusto Pinochet. While the light tunnels of Death Row can be viewed as a metaphor for the transition into the Other World, they can also be associated with the hermetically closed doors of prison wings, with death sentences, "disappearing," torture, and isolation.
This link could already be found in Navarro's early works, including, for example, You Sit, You Die (2002), a deckchair constructed of white neon tubes on whose seat the names of all the people who had been executed in Florida until then are written. The artist continue this concept in 2006 with White Electric Chair, a neon-tube reproduction of Gerit Rietfeld's legendary Red and Blue Chair from 1918, which Navarro executed in different versions: white, red and blue, and pink. The artist's adaptation of this modern classic delighted many design fans because it echoes de Stijl, New Wave aesthetics, and the Minimal light art of Dan Flavin. The fact is, however, that Navarro's decorative chairs are extremely ambiguous. While they stand in space like three-dimensional light pictures, if they were actually used the fragile tube constructions could start fires and electrocute people. As a result, his light sculptures are not continuations of modern design, and Navarro is not trying to follow in the footsteps of the heroes of Minimal art. "I grew up long after the Minimal generation, so I have a distant relation to them," he said in a recent conversation in his Brooklyn studio. "But in Chile Minimal Art seemed to me to be a stereotype for American art, spearheading a kind of art connected with progress and industrialization."
Many of Navarro's objects subtly convey the violence coupled with advancements of the modern age, during which human rights and humanity have fallen victim to ideology and economic pursuits. The light flowing through his sculptures and mirror works can be read both as a metaphor for enlightenment and as one for economic and political power wielded in democratic and totalitarian systems to regulate and control all kinds of energies, be they financial, electricity, goods, or information. The metaphorical role of light and energy is particularly apparent in Resistance, an installation that Navarro showed at the last Venice Biennale. A drivable "electric chair" is mounted to a bicycle frame like a rickshaw. The neon sculpture's electricity is provided by the pedaling of the driver. The accompanying video shows the sculpture being driven across New York's Times Square, with its thousands of neon billboards and media screens. In contrast to this grandiose entertainment hub, Resistance is a small autonomous system in which the consumer is also the producer.
Navarro operates on many levels. While his works pick up on the Minimalists' reduction to simple geometric structures, serial reproduction, and the use of industrially produced materials, he imbues these formal elements with social references. At the same time, however, the artists' groups of works can different widely from one another. The Brief Case (2004), for example, directly reflects political crimes. Installed in a briefcase are four fluorescent tubes with the names of American citizens who were murdered by the Chilean junta.
Joy Division I (2004) functions differently. Under the glass plate of a modernistic-looking couch table is a radiant red, swastika-shaped neon-tube construction. Its counterpart, Joy Division II, contains in the same place a neon structure in which both the Star of David and the yellow triangle that Jews had to wear in the Third Reich can be seen. The works may allude to South America’s ambivalent historical role – on the one hand a continent offering asylum to Jewish emigrants from Europe, but on the other a place where numerous Nazi criminals went into hiding, taking on new identities. But the title admits other references as well. Joy Division is the name of a British post-punk band derived from the so-called "Joy Divisions" in concentration camps, where female inmates were kept for the sexual pleasure of German soldiers. While the band name was a bitter, sarcastic comment on militarism, latent fascism, and tyranny, the group experimented with Nazi aesthetics on its record covers. Like its provocative dealings with historically charged symbols, the post-punk movement used cold neon light as a metaphor for social hardness, standardization, and alienation, which were supposed to be felt and shown ruthlessly.
Navarro's video installation The Missing Monument for Washington DC or A Proposal for a Monument for Victor Jara (2007) takes up and formally implements this attitude. During the putsch against Salvador Allende, Victor Jara, a Chilean activist and folksinger, was arrested and tortured by thugs working for Pinochet. On September 16, 1973, Jara was found dead with 44 bullet holes in him. Pointing to the CIA's complicity in these crimes, Navarro makes a cynical proposal for a monument in the U.S. capital: His video shows two men with bags over their heads in a sterile white room. While one man is down on all fours in an attitude of humility, the other has a guitar on his back and is reciting songs from Victor Jara. It is a classical torture scene.
Victor is the title of the neon sculpture that Navarro developed from the posture of the person kneeling in the video. The body is reduced to a luminous pictograph. The limbs and head are composed of industrially standardized neon tubes. A glass plate is resting on the "back" of the construction. Oppression is stylized into an artistic fetish, into a high-end interior furnishing.
"Many of my works are performative," says Navarro, "they are normally closely connected to the body and have a functional aspect. "To illustrate these levels, he often couples his sculptures with videos, as is the case with one of his most well-known works, Homeless Lamp, The Juice Sucker (2004). "The work is based on a real shopping cart which was reproduced using neon tubes," explains Navarro. "But it has nothing to do with shopping and consumerism. Instead, the shopping cart related to homeless people in New York who need it to transport their stuff. The basic idea was to create a sculpture that you could move, push in front of you, and park anywhere because it didn't belong anywhere, didn't have to be shown in any special place. So I participated and pushed it through the streets." The video accompanying the sculpture shows Navarro and another person moving with their shopping cart past galleries and luxury boutiques in Chelsea to the sounds of the Mexican revolutionary song Juan the Landless. During their perambulation, they illegally obtain electricity from outlets in street lights which are normally used by municipal employees for roadwork.
While Homeless Lamp clearly alludes to poverty, wealth, and homelessness, with his mobile light sculpture Navarro also conjures up a kind of homeless art which has to nourish itself and survive like a parasite, outside the rules of art institutions. Perhaps this is also a good metaphor for describing Navarro's own artistic strategy. His sculptures not only confront visitors with a strange feeling of homelessness and bodylessness. Incorporating Minimal and Post-Minimal elements like a parasite, he has tapped the most powerful and rigid forms of contemporary U.S. art to feed his own art. While the latter may look reduced and cold, it is anything but neutral.