Artist Iván Navarro: What do his water towers at NorthPark Center say about immigration and home?


Iván Navarro's "This Land Is My Land" installation at NorthPark Center. Photograph: Nan Coulter

Why Iván Navarro’s water towers at NorthPark Center have nothing, really, to do with water

by YOLETTE GARCÍA / photographs by NAN COULTER

Three wood-and-steel water towers straddle the first-floor corridor between Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom at NorthPark Center. They stand erect among the high-end storefronts and gleaming visual displays as if to provide sustenance inside this retail oasis. But the 17-foot-tall towers aren’t actual reservoirs: They are sculptures created by Brooklyn-based Chilean artist Iván Navarro and they are meant to provoke questions. Entitled This Land Is My Land, after the Woody Guthrie song, the pieces touch upon the complicated issues of immigration:

Artist Iván Navarro, photograph by Nan Coulter

Artist Iván Navarro. Photograph: Nan Coulter

As I went walking I saw a sign there
And on the sign it said ‘No Trespassing’
But on the other side it didn’t say nothing
That side was made for you and me

Now, at a time when thousands of unaccompanied children are fleeing violence in Central America and coming to the United States in unprecedented waves — as many as 2,000 may be housed in shelters in the Dallas area — immigration has taken a new turn. Detention centers near the borders are overloaded, and questions about resolution keep arising. Where will home be for these children? For Navarro, seeking and finding home is an important theme. His water tanks represent the elemental source of life, but they also signal freedom, which Guthrie’s lyrics address.

“The song was total inspiration about the idea of moving from one place to another and abstractly having a home,” says Navarro. Each tower relates a different message to viewers as they walk underneath and look up. They see neon-constructed words: ME/WE in one tower and BED in another. The third features a neon image of a ladder. Each neon light becomes a repeated pattern reflected through Navarro’s use of mirrors and light. “My pieces play with the idea of simulation and illusion,” he explains. “A one-way mirror creates an up-and-down reflection and you can see an endless ladder. Another neon light says BED, but you can only read it in the mirror. And one says ME [but]when reflected it says WE. It is the complete opposite word and meaning.” Although the words and images are left for viewers to interpret, Navarro offers hints of meaning: The bed can represent home, but it is also the place to dream. And the ladder is about hope and utopia. “The meaning of utopia is nowhere, no place,” he says. “So it’s an idea of a place, but a place that doesn’t really exist. It’s mostly in your mind.”

The water towers were commissioned as site-specific pieces for Madison Square Park in New York City and caught the eye of Nancy Nasher Haemisegger, who co-owns NorthPark. She brought the installation to Dallas, where it will remain on view until May 2015. “I thought instead of having it go to storage,” Haemisegger says of the work, which came down in New York in April, “why not bring it to Dallas for new audiences to enjoy?”

For nearly 50 years, NorthPark has displayed its own significant art collection, but this marks the first exhibit by an outside artist. At Madison Square Park, Navarro had to integrate his work into an open space that has actual water towers around it, but at NorthPark, the installation — and its revealing, migratory notions of home and land — acquires a new context. Navarro believes that under the water towers, viewers can experience a temporary reality, much like when they visit the contained environment of a mall and can step away from their daily lives. Haemisegger says the response to Navarro’s work has been what she anticipated. “There is a surprise factor that seems to draw people in. When you walk by, you can’t help but stop and peer inside and marvel at the glowing neon images that seem to go on forever.”

Nobody living can ever stop me
As I go walking that freedom highway
Nobody living can ever make me turn back
This land was made for you and me

YOLETTE GARCÍA is the assistant dean for external affairs and outreach for the Annette Caldwell Simmons School of Education and Human Development at Southern Methodist University. She also is a former public broadcasting journalist with KERA television and radio.

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