A Towering Display

An Immigrant Chronicles the Immigrant Experience

 Iván Navarro’s new installation This Land is Your Land towers, literally, over Madison Square Park.

Navarro’s water towers reflect the struggles and dynamics of the American immigrant experience—and the title of the installation is a nod to Woody Guthrie’s 1940 immigrant anthem.

The wooden towers are 7 feet wide, with mirrored inner walls on which words and symbols mounted in neon lighting make eerie reflections at night. The towers perch on 8-foot-tall supports that allows them to be viewed from all angles.

Lydia Matthews, professor of visual culture, art, media, and technology at Parsons, explains Navarro’s structural choice: “Wooden water towers and neon signage are ubiquitous here in NYC, so the piece initially appears comforting.”

Donald Lipski, an American sculptor renowned for his installation work, admires Navarro’s technique, saying, “Navarro does here what the best public art often does: It seduces you with an accessible image, then rewards you with an open-ended surprise that relies on your own mind and soul to induce something possibly deep, profound, and personal.”

Once inside the towers, the viewer is stunned by a display of images and words in neon lighting. One tower displays the words “me” and “we,” another displays the word “bed,” and the third features the image of a ladder.

As Matthews says, “We’re confronted by the first primary words and phrases a foreigner learns in the English language—yet because they are made out of neon, our reading becomes destabilized the longer we stare at them.” Although an immigrant may learn the language, the sense of belonging to a strange society is only superficial.

However, the same words and images also represent the immigrants’ struggle between individual and group identity. For instance, an immigrant is a “me” to themselves, but they are at the same time part of the“we” of the collective immigrant population. Matthews adds, “The words ‘be’ and ‘bed’ play against each other, ultimately appearing as an illusive set of broken median lines. The words ‘we’ and ‘me’ appear to ominously scramble over one another as they ascend.”

These ideas and identites converge in the third tower, which offers an exploration of the American Dream. Matthews explains, “In the third tower, Navarro crafts a romantic image of a limitless neon ladder that is close enough to our physical reach that we’re tempted to start climbing. But just as we decipher clues of ‘e pluribus unum’—upward mobility or the Promised Land—we quickly realize how the artist constructs these clichés of the American Dream. They are literally manufactured illusions.” Rejecting the classic American Dream, Navarro shows how this ideology is simply a method of entrapment. It promises social mobility in return for hard work, when social mobility is merely an illusion.

The installations’ dynamics reflect this ideology. Mirrors are arranged inside the installation in such a way as to create an endless repetition of the words and images. While markers of the American Dream are superficially present, the road ahead is an abyss. Matthews explains, “The truth value in the metaphors of immigrant desire appear with clarity—and then dissolve before our eyes.”

The question here, then, is: Was installation art the right medium for Navarro’s intentions?

Lipski believes so, saying, “On the terrace of my home, 12 blocks from Madison Square Park, there is a water tank, which I love for both its brute form and for the poetic thoughts it evokes in me.”

Navarro’s choice is interesting because installation art is a relatively new medium and didn’t gain traction until the late 1960s. Nonetheless, its visibility places it in a good position to be a vehicle for social change. It not only reaches a wider audience, but also forces them to think critically about the topics being explored.

Artist Alois Kronschlaeger agrees: “Public art functions when the audience is enticed to engage with it. They are works that can function outside of a traditional white-box setting and that can make an impact on a wide audience are crucial to our culture.”

In Navarro’s case, the commonly accepted truth called into question is the American Dream.

Kronschlaeger further explains, “The strength of Navarro’s work is the optical illusion that one is looking into the underbelly of the water towers. This unique experience lends itself to the ability of large-scale sculptural work to be transformative.” Subtle social messages allow viewers to draw varying conclusions from Navarro’s work.

Installation art occupies a unique and significant role within the contemporary art world. The fact that it represents a unique convergence of art forms—for example, writing and light, as in Navarro’s piece—with architecture shows that it transgresses genres.

So is this genre-crossing medium a better conveyer of public messages than speech, writing, or other media?

Kronschlaeger isn’t so sure. “I believe that one cannot generalize whether writing is better than visual art or vice versa. What matters most is if the piece works—no matter the medium—and works within its context.”

Regardless, as Matthews says, “Our information-saturated society subscribes to the authority of the written and spoken word, so we’ve grown accustomed to being spoon-fed with mediated narratives about important social and political issues. We forget how much our bodies can discern if they are tuned in to the imagery, objects, and energies within our immediate environment.” Navarro’s work one-ups installation art’s flexibility by requiring, not forcing, viewers to engage with it. 

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