Man of Refraction

Using light, mirrors, and neon and with a sensibility at once political and poetic, Iván Navarro creates glowing gateways of endless space

The human-powered Resistance, 2009, pointed toward the glowing doorways of Death Row, 2006–2009, at the 2009 Venice Biennale. On the floor, Bed, 2009.


Electric light is an essential element of a piece by Iván Navarro. He may use glowing fluorescent rods to construct iconic modernist chairs or—with the aid of mirrors—outline doorways leading into dark, seemingly infinite spaces. Drawn to the seductive possibilities of artificial light as a medium, the 39-year-old Chilean-born artist has a very personal relationship with electricity that infuses all his work with a layer of social commentary.

Growing up in Santiago under the dictatorship of General Augusto Pinochet, Navarro was accustomed to the power being cut off in the evening by the government to keep people in their homes and enforce curfews. “You needed a flashlight to get to the radio, which was like an altar in the house, to hear the news,” he says. “All the pieces that I’ve made make reference to controlling activity, and electricity was a way to control people.”

“While many artists use light as a primary medium, Iván has managed to create a particular visual language with light that consistently refers to previous histories, both art and political histories, and combines his experiences as a Chilean with those of his life in the United States,” says Anne Ellegood, senior curator at the Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. Formerly a curator for the California collector Peter Norton, Ellegood first became interested in Navarro’s work when Norton acquired his 2005 Electric Chair. This re-creation in radiant colored neon of Gerrit Rietveld’s famous Red Blue Chair injected a commentary on capital punishment into the history of design; it could deliver dangerous voltage or shatter if someone tries to sit in it. “He has taken up specific pieces by artists like Dan Flavin, Tony Smith, Ellsworth Kelly and added a psychological spin to their formal inquiries, translating everyday objects like chairs, ladders, fences into fragile and haunting objects,” Ellegood says.

She also acquired Navarro’s 2006 video/sculpture piece Flashlight: I’m not from here, I’m not from there for the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington, D.C., when she worked there as an associate curator, and included it in the 2007 show “Refract, Reflect, Project: Light Works from the Collection.” Navarro built a wheelbarrow from fluorescent tubing, which in the video is being pushed by a displaced person walking along desolate train tracks and accompanied by a Julio Iglesias song about a resourceful drifter (the artist frequently finds inspiration in music). Periodically, the character steals gasoline from a car to fill the electric generator that powers his wheelbarrow, or he changes the color of his fluorescent lighting by switching filters.

“It’s the idea of his identity constantly changing as he’s pushing his life around,” says Navarro, underscoring the importance of an external power source in this and other video/sculpture works. “He doesn’t have a fixed place to live and he’s trying to go back to his mother town, but no one recognizes him.”

Navarro left his homeland in 1997 and now lives in Brooklyn, where he has many projects in production in the workshop adjacent to his studio. Speaking in accented but highly articulate English, he is hardly the image of a homeless immigrant laborer, yet Flashlight carries echoes of his own difficult path. Until Pinochet lost the Chilean presidential election in 1988, Navarro knew no other reality than a culture of repression and fear.

Navarro was born just nine months before the military coup d’etat on September 11, 1973, that took over all mechanisms of power, including the Universidad Técnica del Estado in Santiago, where his father directed an art program. He was preparing an exhibition protesting fascism on the day of the takeover but was able to hide within the university and escape. Most others there were taken and tortured or killed. Weeks later he returned in a foolhardy attempt to retrieve his paycheck and was apprehended and imprisoned for six months. After his release, he worked in advertising.

“It was easy for people to come to your house and take you,” says Navarro, who never traveled outside Chile during his youth. “It made my family very overprotective—of me, of the whole situation.”

Navarro came of age as democracy was returning to his country. Good at carpentry, he originally intended to study set design. But at the Catholic University of Santiago, from 1991 to 1995, he was a student of Eugenio Dittborn, who was a generation older and had participated in the international art world under the radar of the dictatorship. He invented “airmail paintings,” collages made of cheap materials that could be folded, packed in special envelopes, and sent out of the country. In Dittborn’s circle Navarro found a community.

His earliest pieces using electricity were handmade lamps that played with the stereotype of Chilean art as necessarily craft based. He showed them in hotel lobbies and friends’ houses because the dictatorship had done away with public art spaces. In 1996, he made The Great Lamp, an installation in a new gallery space, where he “drew” on the walls with electric cords punctuated with lightbulbs that viewers could turn on and off to change the pattern of light.

It was his first artwork to seriously address “the history of electricity as a tool of torture during the dictatorship,” says Navarro. “In this case, it was a totally democratic approach to the use of power. It was important that you could leave it off totally if you wanted.”

In 1997, a friend who had moved to New York invited him to visit. Navarro intended to stay only briefly, but he found a job at a studio restoring furniture and acquired a visa by enrolling in a language school in Times Square. “I tried to stay like any young immigrant,” he says. For three years, he worked during the day and went to classes in the evening to fulfill the 90 percent attendance requirement.

For Navarro, language became another material to work with. He got into the habit of reading the dictionary and making lists of words in a notebook. As he flips through the book, pointing at a list of words that are both verbs and nouns, he says, “I like words that have two sides, one very ambiguous and one very objective.” He often punctuates his sculptures with a single neon word, adding another layer of meaning to the work. “It’s interesting to get better in the language and try to understand the poetic side of a word,” he says. “Sometimes you get completely lost in the word you’re using.”

In 2003 Navarro made a discovery that led to the defining development in his work. In Chinatown he saw a star-shaped mirrored lamp hanging on a wall and making the wall surface seem to recede endlessly when he looked into it. He went back to his studio and started experimenting with mirrors, including one-way mirrors of the kind used in interrogation rooms and in skyscrapers with reflective facades that let people see out but not in. He found that the simple interaction of a normal mirror facing the reflective side of a one-way mirror, with a light sandwiched in between, created an infinite projection. “It’s very mysterious and you don’t see a reflection of yourself,” says Navarro, stressing that it doesn’t work without the light. “It’s a trick.”

The use of mirrors opened a realm of metaphoric spaces for Navarro. In 2006, he made a wall of 13 one-way mirrored doorways limned in neon and matched to the rainbow colors of Ellsworth Kelly’s flat serial canvases, Spectrum 5. Titled Death Row, Navarro’s mirrored wall lures viewers to these glowing gateways of endless space with their suggestion of an ominous fate (and a touch of science fiction and nightclub glamour thrown in).

That same year, Navarro built Die Again (Monument for Tony Smith), a 12-foot, black-painted plywood cube referring to Smith’s 1962 Minimalist steel piece Die. In Navarro’s version, viewers can actually enter the cube, where they will find themselves in a chamber with five triangles of white neon embedded in a star formation in the floor, which seems to descend interminably, while they listen to the Beatles singing the wistful “Nowhere Man.”

“Minimalism was the American art of the moment in the 1960s and ’70s,” Navarro says, “but in South America formalism wasn’t part of the avant-garde. Everything was full of social content. In a way, it was very easy for me to take on this Minimal reference and put in all the social content that was missing.”

While he uses the work of other artists as departure points, the figure whose influence he points to as seminal for him is Gordon Matta-Clark. “When I planned all those pieces, my intellectual interest was to open up spaces in the architecture, and I was thinking about the cuts Matta-Clark made in actual buildings,” Navarro says. He is also interested in how Matta-Clark, an American, went to Santiago in 1971 in search of his long-absent Chilean father, artist Roberto Matta. His father’s friend, the director of the Museo de Bellas Artes, told him Matta was in Paris but suggested he do a project at the museum. Matta-Clark created a now-legendary piece (unfortunately, undocumented) using mirrors that connected the dome of the museum with the bathroom in the basement. “Matta-Clark is a real inspiration in every sense,” says Navarro.

Navarro’s interest in words as objects and metaphors is reflected in another group of sculptures, based on the form of a pedestal. Instead of the usual cubic or cylindrical plinth supporting a sculpture, in these works the sculpture is inverted, with words such as “ECHO,” “DIE,” “HIDE,” and “BED” spelled out in neon and replicated through mirrors into their depths. Navarro points out that every letter in these words is vertically symmetrical; in the sculpture, only the top half of the letter is actual neon tubing while the bottom half is reflection. “The duality is literal,” says Navarro. “One half is real and the other half is illusion. The word is only completed in its representation.”

Navarro was surprised to be asked to represent Chile at the 2009 Venice Biennale, having left his country more than a decade earlier. “I said I’ll do it, but I’m not going to say Chile is the most beautiful country in South America,” he recalls. He included the pedestal piece Bed, suggestive of domestic comfort in name but antithetical to what a bed is physically, and a video/sculpture piece entitled Resistance, a stationary bicycle that viewers could pedal, generating electricity to power a chair made of fluorescent tubes attached behind the bicycle, similar to a pedicab.

The accompanying video shows a cyclist toting an empty glowing chair through the streets of New York. In Venice, the bicycle was pointed toward the wall of doors in Death Row. “The idea was you were pedaling in front of the doors but you weren’t moving anywhere because the bike was stationary and the doors were just an illusion,” says Navarro, of his artistic statement about a nation he felt had lost its identity.

“Venice was his first important public breakthrough as an artist,” says curator Dan Cameron, who first met Navarro in Santiago in 1994, when Cameron was working with Dittborn on a show for the New Museum in New York. Navarro was the only student Dittborn insisted he see. “There is something I find profoundly Chilean in Iván’s work,” says Cameron. “It has a kind of humility that looks outward and tries to find connections with a larger world that has to do not just with Chile’s political history in the last 50 years. Chile’s one of the most geographically isolated countries in the world, and life at the periphery is something that’s understood as part of the fabric of life. I think that kind of distance and farawayness is there in Iván’s work.”

Cameron included Navarro in Prospect.2, the latest iteration of the New Orleans biennial he founded, which is currently on view (through January 29). Navarro installed a seven-foot-high white neon fence enclosing the empty interior space of a gallery in the St. Claude Art District. “It’s a way to control the circulation; it’s sort of like a prison,” says Navarro. “It’s a way of inviting people to appreciate the piece from the outside.”

Navarro also inverted the way people typically look at skyscrapers in his show earlier this year at Paul Kasmin Gallery in New York, where his editioned sculptures begin at $40,000 and his large-scale installations are priced up to $400,000. There he showed wall pieces featuring the floor plans of Modernist towers outlined in neon and with seemingly endless space tunneling backward. It was as though viewers were positioned at the top of a building peering down into its dark bowels rather than standing outside looking up. Brancusi’s Endless Column was his departure point, and he was drawn to certain buildings—the Flatiron and Empire State Building in New York, Lake Point Tower and Sears Tower in Chicago, and the Jumeirah Emirates Towers in Dubai—for their abstract shapes, some evoking organic forms used by Miró or Arp. He punctuated many of the works with single words in the center of the space—“burden,” “decay,” “desert,” “shelter”—suggesting the opposite of the utopian optimism typically embodied in such buildings.

“The height of these supermodern buildings represents some kind of power—economic power or political power,” says Navarro. “They’re symbols. But when you rework a symbol, it becomes an abstraction. It’s about the movement between reality and illusion.”

Hilarie M. Sheets is a contributing editor of ARTnews.

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