Written by: Caranissa Djatmiko (an Indonesian-based writer who enjoys exploring Jakarta’s arts and culture scene)
With politically infused messages, Iván Navarro’s works seek to remind people of the things that really matter in a society ruled by capitalism. Throughout the process, the Chilean light artist learns that art has helped him understand the darkness of his past and offered him a way to recover from it.
“Art is soul’s medicine,” Shaun McNiff once said.
Author and arts therapist McNiff has long believed in the healing and transformative effect that art can bring to people. Artists, according to him, work their way through various attempts and efforts to realize their full creative potentials, although the journey itself may at times be extremely challenging. Multiple experiences that an artist, or any person for that matter, is exposed to in life – and regardless of whether or not they are directly concerned with the creative process in an artistic sense – will ultimately help them unleash what McNiff refers to as ‘creative expression’. What happens after this creative expression is materialized is when we get to genuinely see what artists can bring to the table, as well as how far has the process itself changed them.
The artistic journey of Chilean artist Iván Navarro is one that is fascinating to observe, as it captures unique conditions and experiences that allow him to create and improve as an artist. His creative expression is mostly reflected in his light figures that at first may seem to evoke a sense of joy. From neon water tower (“This Is Your Land”) and neon ornamental fences (“The Armory Fence”) to fluorescent tube bicycle and chair (“Resistance”), these sculptures easily provide audiences with visual delight. Yet, while they shine so bright and colorfully from the outside, there was more grim and darkness to Iván’s works than meets the eye.
Most of Iván’s works are in fact responses to the turmoil of his childhood that seek to challenge the notion of power and authority. I became curious of just how exactly the artist’s experience has inspired him to create and helped him escape the true horror of his past. To better understand his creative process, I asked him to reflect on the inspirations, materials and practices that define his work, and what it really means to be an artist.
First and foremost, Iván considers himself as more of a ‘producer’ (creator) rather than an ‘artist’ (“A producer is a person who makes things and anything possible through art.”). His portfolio encompasses a series of remarkable creative projects, from making sculptures and staging participatory performances in exhibitions across the globe, to collaborating with musicians and running his own record label, Hueso Records, which produces limited edition Vinyls. To consider him merely as an artist would be to overlook the sheer range of skills that have paved the way for him to create and work on diverse subjects.
He began to understand art – during his second year of art school – as a medium to interact with things that he had always been interested in, such as carpentry, photography, music and design. Before then he did not quite know what he was meant to do. It was not until he was in his late 20s that he began to truly understand the significance of art in his life. That was when he realized how much of his childhood had greatly inspired his work and made him into the artist that he was.
Having grown up in Santiago, Iván experienced the repressive regime under Augusto Pinochet. Born in 1972, Iván was merely a baby when Pinochet came into power a year later. Yet, he has lived with memories of the latter’s ruthless dictatorship for decades and can still remember the fear of sharing the same terrible fate as many political dissidents who mysteriously disappeared at that time. After moving to the States in 1997 (he has since resided in Brooklyn, New York), Iván eventually realized the extent of situation that had occurred in Chile all along and later became interested to explore the harrowing history of Pinochet’s dictatorship, particularly between 1973 – 1989 – during which he reportedly killed and tortured thousands of people who were considered to be his political opponents, including women and children. (Pinochet’s regime ended in 1990).
Iván gradually learned the damage that dictatorship had brought to his country and its people. “So many aspects of [our] daily life back then were manifestations of living under the control of a dictatorial regime –[everything from] how to dress up, what music to listen, what friends to hang out with, what neighborhood to go to, how much you can tell about your family to a new friend and vice versa,” he says.
His earlier works translated the conditions of life under the control of such a regime, as well as the psychological trauma that came with experiencing confinement for many years. To tell his stories, he began to make use of light. Interestingly, while light is used as a symbol of hope and truth, it can also allude to oppression. “You Sit, You Die”, for instance, is one of Iván’s first works that shows an electric chair built from white fluorescent lights (neon, fluorescent and incandescent light have remained the star of his work to this day although Iván emphasizes that his motivation is to always work with the space and not just the light). Iván was accordingly inspired by electricity, which was often used by the Chilean government to punish people.
Along the way, Iván’s childhood has allowed him to further relate to pressing issues around him. “Now I also see and understand those experiences as tools to make me become more aware of the society I live in today, which is completely controlled by capitalism,” he says. His growing concerns for the society have as well been reflected in his creations.
In one of his most esteemed works, “Homeless Lamp, the Juice Sucker”, Iván presents a grocery cart made from electric tubing. Through a five-hour video performance, he shows two men strolling through Chelsea’s gallery district in New York, breaking into local power outlets and hijacking the city energy to light up the shopping trolley. These men are portrayed as vigilantes who mean to care for the poor by stealing ‘power’ from the rich: the art world or the authorities that according to Iván has become more governed by the principles of consumerism rather than creativity.
These days, however, Iván is more excited to work on subjects that involve language and communication issues. “I feel I am going back to the roots of basic social issues,” he claims. Iván’s latest exhibition “The Moon in the Water” features a collection of his old and new pieces that play around with visual, sound and kinetic perceptions. They are sprawled across three floors in the gallery.
During The Moon in the Water’s opening, Iván performed as a DJ alongside a drummer playing on his drum sculptures. Speaking of the exhibition, he highlights two musical components that audiences can engage with as they explore the gallery. The lower gallery features “Drums” (2009 – 2018) – including 2014’s “Bomb, Bomb, Bomb” and 2017’s “Revolution IV”– all of which do not make any sound as Iván intends to make sense of drums as an object after removing their main function. The second floor of the gallery is where the music plays. Here is where audiences find 2016’ “Die Again (Monument for Tony Smith)”, a dark chamber with wooden structure and light sculpture built into the floor while a recording of The Beatles’ Nowhere Man plays behind.
Referring to his new piece this year, “Vanity” series, Iván describes that ‘ it is all about playing with language and words on a visual and sensorial level’. Vanity sees three separate mirrors – a square, a triangle and a circle – each of which has a poem sandblasted onto them to make the text appear transparent. Audiences can catch their reflections through these mirrors while also being able to read the visual poem.
The Moon in the Water is Iván’s second solo exhibition in Gallery Hyundai, adding to his long list of exhibitions held in major arts galleries and institutions worldwide. That said, he still grapples with the way these institutions such as museums present art and limit how it should be experienced. “People don’t feel free inside a museum,” he says. The fact that most museums don’t allow audiences to touch the artworks that are on display is still a problem for Iván since he believes that art is ‘made for the public to experience in whatever way they can’. Which is why he hopes that audiences will get to enjoy The Moon in the Water in their own ways in spite of existing barriers like language.
He further says, “I am not expecting people to necessarily understand the words in the pieces, but there will be an experience of lights and sounds that anybody can access on a physical or emotional level.”
When describing his creative process today compared to when he first started, Iván reveals that he has always tried to remain ‘vital and fearless’. He believes in the importance of revisiting his old practices while also continuing to freely experiment with new materials. “I still find myself picking up objects in the street to make sculptures, which is how I started making art in New York, recycling discarded fluorescent lights I found in the garbage,” Iván says.
Iván admits that he likes to draw inspiration from a variety of sources, which may include the lyrics of a song, a passage in a book or even a joke. Then, he pours down his ideas by sketching. He further elaborates his process, “Most of the time I go back to old, unfinished ideas, or unfinished pieces, to pursue and develop the original idea. I save every sketch I make. But in general my process of work is subtle, and relies on spontaneous inspiration, which I then work hard to develop.”
Whatever inspiration he relies on or medium he uses, Iván agrees that art should come with the responsibilities of representing pressing issues and bringing a lasting impact. Nevertheless, he would not like to consider art as a form of activism because it does not immediately provide the answers to existing issues. He believes that it may take awhile for art to really make a difference because ‘the process of change is too slow and too complicated to be seen in the short run.’
“I like to think that my art might have an impact on people probably way after I am dead, for now I am just experimenting and guessing what it means to do what I do,” he declares.
In the beginning, art seemed to be Iván’s way of making a statement and showing the other side of the world that people might not want to look at. Now I see that it has also become a way for him to recover from his past, confront the fear he once experienced and restore hope for what he thinks would be a better future.
*) The Moon in the Water is at Gallery Hyundai, Seoul until 3 June
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