This Land Is Your Land
Iván Navarro (b. 1972 in Santiago, Chile; lives and works in Brooklyn) has named his project in Madison Square Park for Woody Guthrie’s beloved folk song This Land Is Your Land. Navarro conflates his own experience as an immigrant to this country with the promise of inclusion supported by Guthrie’s lyrics. Through the exhibition, comprising three sixteen-foot-tall sculptures resembling wooden water towers, Navarro appeals to populations who are defined by their transience. Uniting Guthrie’s drifting laborers with immigrants who travel in search of work and opportunity, the artist exploits the water tank as a symbol of often unattainable sustenance and shelter. Guthrie’s song, written in 1940, has become an unofficial American anthem. From the 1960s on it captured renewed interest via politically sympathetic performers like Bob Dylan, Pete Seeger and Bruce Springsteen. Today, Navarro revives the tune for a twenty-first century audience, crediting its influence on his current sculptural project and transforming its meaning once again.Navarro spells out the connection between his sculptures and present-day itinerancy with words and images crafted in neon, visible when visitors look up into the wooden barrel of each work. When reflected between two parallel mirrors, the illuminated text appears to repeat endlessly, casting light through an illusionistic space within the tanks. In one tower, a glowing ladder reaches forever into a vertical abyss. A secret route into the sky, the ladder constitutes a surreal escape path to be scaled without destination. Climbing that ladder may be a metaphoric means to a better life. The ME/WE sculpture flip-flops endlessly between the two words, oscillating from self-declaration to acknowledgment of the larger social or political collective. A BED, the final neon word in Navarro’s trio, is a basic unit of personal property: the object of rest, dreams, intimacy and comfort. The word resonates as the humble antithesis to a life lived in search of home.
In selectively forgotten verses of This Land Is Your Land, Guthrie’s drifters encounter “No Trespassing” signs within the song’s oft-repeated lyrics about “that ribbon of highway,” “that endless skyway,” and “the golden valley.” Navarro’s installation updates the song’s language with contemporary meaning, focusing on today’s heated public debate on immigration. The artist imbues his sculptures with concerns about the societal simultaneity of promise and exclusion, building a conceptual duality into his work.
Navarro chose water towers for his project at Madison Square Park because they readily conjure a ubiquitous image of New York’s skyline. The fact that these objects typically provide water is key to the artist’s choice of the form. “I like the idea of a reservoir of water,” relates Navarro. “These simple and timeless wooden structures containing water – the most primitive and elemental resource, the essence of human sustenance – remind us of the basic condition that all humanity shares.” Here, however, he brings water towers to ground level, allowing public interaction. “We look up, and they look down at us,” Navarro explains. “They are iconic and yet we never get to experience them at close range…From the park you can spot some of them, as if they were all around us…mysterious receptacles of the memory of the city they preside over.”
In the context of Madison Square Park, Navarro’s water towers are distinctly urban. Historically they have heralded the newfound stability of a frontier town or beckoned migrant laborers as sky-high symbols of available employment. Navarro’s This Land Is Your Land explores the peripatetic national history of which water towers are a part. The artist has selected a sculptural form emblematic of permanence and sustenance. He conceptually juxtaposes these markers of urban habitation with the transience that has characterized immigrant life in America for centuries: temporary welcome, temporary work, temporary home.