The all-white light works of Iván Navarro at the Frost Art Museum at FIU are deceptively simple. The title of the museum’s main exhibit up for Art Basel Miami Beach even underscores this, matter-of-factly called “Iván Navarro: Fluorescent Sculptures.” But this internationally acclaimed, Chilean-born artist is anything but simple, and his sculptures transcend the clichéd neon light-art output we too often are subjected to today.
In town for just a few days to install the show, on his way to Istanbul, Turkey, for another exhibition of his work, the affable but unassuming sculptor is excited about this Miami premiere, the first time that his “Nowhere Man” series is being shown in one place in the United States (a version of it was unveiled in London in 2009).
Navarro has a dizzying array of influences, from obscure and avant-garde designers of the early 20th century, to light pioneer Dan Flavin and punk bands such as Joy Division. A child of the oppressive Pinochet regime during a turbulent and violent time, his work is political and carries subtle and serious commentary. Yet he remains fundamentally a tinkerer, someone as fascinated with electrical cords and light sockets as with intellectual art criticism. Based in New York since 1997, he intentionally rejects many of the high-tech gadgets that people employ today in favor of cheap, easily procurable fluorescent light tubes -- and his forms remain purposefully clean and basic.
These sculptures are easy to look at and complex to contemplate, a great combination.
So what are these nowhere men? They are crafted from the most common four sizes of fluorescent tubes, and are based on pictograms drawn by Otl Aicher for the 1972 Munich Olympics (that sports event is of course forever tainted because of the slaughter of Israeli athletes). Aicher’s initial drawings are simplicity at its core, black-and-white circles and lines depicting completely anonymous figures performing Olympic sports – swimming, running, jumping. Navarro took this blueprint and made similarly faceless, genderless sculptures — in his case, in all white light. Here at the Frost, some get an entire wall to themselves, others share with one or two.
While walking through the exhibit, Navarro explains how these bright bodies hanging on the wall reflects the Olympic ideal – these aren’t real bodies, they are generic and based on a Greek aesthetic that wasn’t authentic to begin with. So he took the most bland of colors – white – and the mass-produced, industrial fluorescent tube to express his nowhere men. And yes, his series is named after the Beatles song, Nowhere Man. The ultimate rudderless, anonymous persona. As John Lennon sang: “Doesn’t have a point of view, knows not where he’s going to. Isn’t he a bit like you and me.”
Navarro — who represented Chile in the 2009 Venice Biennale — has pursued that theme in other unrelated sculptures in the show loaned from Miami collections. One is a red fluorescent light ladder, now part of the Cricket Taplin Collection. As Navarro explains while standing in the red glow, he too didn’t know where he was going to in terms of making art, so he just started making things. A ladder can lead to somewhere, or it can go no where. He laughs when he says that some people have actually tried to climb on it; of course, if you put your body weight on a sculpture made of light tubes, it will break.