Figurative Illumination – Iván Navarro

The Chilean artist opens a new exhibition in New York in which layers of social and political depth are identified through sculpted silence.

The artist, composer, theorist and poet John Cage (1912 – 1992) wrote of silence that “there is no such thing as an empty space or an empty time. There is always something to see, something to hear. In fact, try as we may to make a silence, we cannot.” This idea reverberates around Chilean artist Iván Navarro’s new exhibition Mute Parade at Paul Kasmin Gallery in New York. Adapting a vocabulary that has become familiar through his work with fluorescent light and mirrors, the artist has created a series of rooms and sculptures which link the themes of space, silence, illumination and question what it means to be “instrumental” in something, or what it means to “orchestrate.” Navarro says: “There are no actual sounds in the exhibition. It’s about the idea that certain objects and certain spaces create sounds in the mind of the viewer. For example, there is an object that looks like a drum, but it doesn’t function as one. Instead of noise we get light.”

It perhaps comes as no surprise that wordplay around “instrument” and “orchestration” suffuses the work on display. Navarro, who was born in Santiago, Chile, in 1972, and grew up during the regime of General Pinochet, knows all too well how silencing and oppression can be achieved through loudness, and is perhaps best placed to explore this phenomenon beyond the known context. He has become recognised for installations that subtly illuminate, glow and reveal the socio-political resonances of familiar forms. With his piece 2006’s Red and Blue Electric Chair, he subverted the familiar Modernist form of Rietveld’s chair by constructing one out of fluorescent lights in a way that balanced the fragile, the frightening and the lethal to suggest ways in which violence and oppression may become inscribed into cultures, and can permeate our relationship with form.

One of the most striking elements of Mute Parade is Impenetrable Room (2016) in which the artist explores the shape and form of “road cases”, used to safely transport musical instruments for touring orchestras and bands. These boxes, which are custom-fitted to the shape of the instruments, are designed to provide ultimate protection and cushioning in transit. Navarro has installed these shapes with fluorescent lights and mirrors to create the illusion of infinitely receding space. The works evoke silence – the shapes of the objects retain the sense of stillness and protection – whilst also powerfully resonating as symbols and giving the possibility of narrative through repetition and variation. The viewer might read the undulating green neon light in the piece as a visual metaphor of sound waves, or as waves of actual light. The patterns also seem to draw on psychedelic art of the sort that rock bands of a certain era would use as cover iconography. This ambiguity is built into the forms of the installation, as the artist comments: “These cases look impossible to open, they look very locked and sealed, but with the mirror I have created the illusion that there is an endless space inside.”

In Impenetrable Room, the cases are arranged like a labyrinth in the space and the viewer has to negotiate areas that can at times look closed off or endlessly open, depending on the angle they are approached from. This concern with how things are read within a space and the exploration of the visual with the aural is central to the exhibition. Here, black and white squares of paper are placed on the floor with the words “Loud Unclear” and “Read You” written on them. These phrases, which might seem hermetic or ambiguous, subvert the processes associated with reading and hearing. They resist interpretation and confuse if meaning is to be understood as something immediate. These pieces of paper, which might look like discarded flyers after a rally or gig, are illuminated by the installations and interact with the visual forms of the surrounding exhibition. The texts themselves are reminiscent of Cage’s own dictum that “I have nothing to say and I am saying it and that is poetry as I need it.”

There are works on view at Paul Kasmin that make use of circular text that bends around shapes that look like drums or speakers, endlessly looping the phrases “KICKBACK” and “KNOCKKNOCKKNOCK.” These pieces of text are chosen not only because of the suggestion of sound as a metaphor that underpins linguistic experience, from childhood stories to colloquial utterance, but also for the noise they themselves make in the palate – filled with the hard consonantal clatter of all those percussive “k”s. They are frustrated, unworkable palindromes and tongue-twisters in which the concrete nature of the words is instrumental in their semantic interpretation. Navarro’s language seems to blend and combine the traditions of sound and visual poetry with the looping, sampling and mixing processes of contemporary music, folding the two forms in on one another. Whether or not we hear these words in synaesthesia as we read them, Navarro suggests their sound through the form of drums and in the way light bounces and echoes in the space.

The installations interrogate the ways in which language and music combine, not just figuratively, but literally, in song lyrics. Navarro has his own record label, Hueso Records, and has done much to champion and provide a sounding board for Chilean recording artists internationally. This interest feeds into his art, which often uses text that has the tone and memorability of the best lyrics. From Beginning to End (2014), for example, seems familiar from the language of overheard music. Given Navarro’s treatment, the words “from beginning to end” seem to fluctuate and reverberate, losing their definition. They become stripped of their context as the illusionistic use of mirrors creates a sense of an endlessly receding infinite space, a space without beginning or end. Their visual quality in light becomes fuzzy and instead they create a sense of an illusionary space that relies on the co-dependence of the two book-end words for its construction. This work also reflects the way that both light and sound are instrumental in maintaining structures of power, persuasion and control in art and culture.

Tuning (2015) explores “the metaphor of finding a balance in making a piece of work.” It consists of six towering drums against a wall, which are arranged in a pyramid form. Inserted using mirrors are the words “HIGH”, “TONE”, “TUNE”, “BASS”, “MUTE” and “DEAF.” This piece conveys the idea of the drums being played without them making a noise. The title connects to a text of the same name by the late conceptual poet David Antin, Tuning (1984), in which he critiques how we “come to understand things” through a process he describes as tuning an instrument. Investigating the spaces that writing inhabits across the page – and those which it leaves blank – the poet draws parallels to the works at Paul Kasmin: affecting certain senses whilst leaving others alone.

Navarro is interested in these questions of how meaning comes about and how semantics happen through language, not in a direct A – B conduit but rather through a more poetic understanding of the subtle interactions which take place between word, medium and context. As he comments: “All the drums have a text, so it is almost as though they are playing a specific song with its own lyrics. The combination of lyrics creates the narrative of the show. But it is all super poetic, it is all about the viewer creating different connections and interactions in the show between sound and space.”

Conduit #1 (2015) uses neon, steel, mirrors, one-way mirrors and electrical energy; the form of a ladder seems to extend both downwards through a mirror and faintly echoes around the circular form of the mirror too, opening up the sense of communication as something more complex and many-sided than a conduit model. A similar form is used in Impenetrable (Whisper) (2012) in which the word “whisper” in capital letters emerges loudly from a tunnel, doubling itself in the mirror like an echo. There is something unsettling about the spaces that are constructed through light – Navarro plays with the forms of emergency exit, tunnels and pipes. His use of neon lights also suggests a slightly unreal, noir atmosphere. The idea of an echoing, shouted whisper is itself the sort of paradox that the works on display represent.

On his reasons for rendering words in neon, the artist comments that “the font, the context of language, is always fundamental to the meaning those words have. I often play with words, and this can create a sense of frustration for the viewer in relation to the work.” Sometimes this annoyance is absurdist in nature, such as in POST NO BILLS (2016) in which a cherry wood box, fluorescent light and mirrors are used to create the illusion of an infinite loop of negation, referring to public posters and dreaded nancial bills. In To Reach (2012), Navarro draws on the possibilities of the title phrase, allowing the viewer to add “to the stars”, “infinity”, or any other wording, when confronted with a circular frame and the sort of illuminated mirror associated with Hollywood dressing rooms. There are rare occasions, when the absurd asserts itself through a frisson of frustration between object and text. More often, there is a stillness in the artist’s wordplay, a resistance to bombast and to singular interpretation.

One way of reading Mute Parade is that instruments are part of military occasions and noise is used in military propaganda, thus the use of martial music and orchestration is one way of asserting and maintaining power and control. However, it is evident that the collection’s social and ecological depth goes beyond this. At another level the piece echoes across the space as a re-contextualised object: the translation of sonorous waves into light is just as important to Navarro. “One thing that interests me is the way instruments are used in military paraphernalia, but this is only one level of the art and it is also very important to experience the space.” Silence is, within this exhibition, an instrument in its own right.

There is something powerful and beautiful in this notion, perhaps because it suggests both potential and possibility. There is also something empowering and liberating to be found in the wordplay and multiplicity of semantic interpretations that Navarro writes into his oeuvre. This is the kind of possibility that John Cage implied when he wrote “the world is teeming; anything can happen.” The artist pays attention to what it might mean to be instrumental and what it means to resist orchestration. This possibility is always a political one, whether or not it immediately connects with any specific historical or social contexts.

Words Colin Herd

Iván Navarro: Mute Parade. Until 23 December. Paul Kasmin Gallery, New York.