Ivan Navarro loves building lamps. When he began using electric lights in Chile during the ’90s, there were few places for young artists to show their work.
Galleries weren’t keen to welcome a new generation of artists, so he searched for non-artistic exhibition venues such as a building lobby or a friend’s living room to introduce his art as a part of architectural spaces.
Then he realised that art could be considered furniture as the only way to exhibit his works was to create functional objects. They looked like lamps but were sculptures in disguise.
A decade on, his lamps seem to come somewhere between the realms of design and art. And Homeless Lamp, The Juice Sucker, his video about a lamp with two protagonists wheeling a shopping trolley with white fluorescent bulbs through Chelsea’s gallery district in Manhattan and plugging into lampposts to power up their cart, has become a symbol of poverty, alienation and survival.
Navarro in his Brooklyn studio.
“What is important is that every one of my works is almost a criticism of the one before it,” Ivan insists. “That’s how I keep creating. I don’t look for political issues to spark a new piece. I’m very focused on the process.”
He adds: “Previously, I played with the idea that furniture could also be a sculpture and then I said, what if these pieces moved? The trolley revealed other meanings, too. I think that once you do something well with a certain material, the meanings come through.”
“This logic also gives a lot of freedom. For instance, you could say ‘I’m making a chair and what’s the opposite of a chair?’ Then you look for another object that makes sense in that logic, and you make it.”
While Ivan’s initial intention may have been to create a movable sculpture, his medium of electric lights has become a symbol of truth and hope; a way to illuminate the past and society’s ills.
“Of course, I’m interested in social and political issues and how art can be a response that permeates everyday life. I believe in art that is a genuine response to human activities. In my mind, any survival strategy is in itself a form of art; that is my deepest source of inspiration. Art is a way to subvert reality and that can take you in different directions, whether through escapism or confrontation or both.”
With his signature fluorescent and neon lights and mirrors, he hijacks everyday objects or architectural fixtures like ladders, doors, fences and water towers and imbues them with metaphorical meanings critiquing systems of power, authority and surveillance.
Comprising multicoloured fluorescent tubes, Ivan’s Red and Blue Electric Chair is his version of a remake of Gerrit Rietveld’s iconic 1918 Red and Blue Chair.
The Red and Blue Electric Chair, a 2004 sculpture made with fluorescent tubes and a metal frame.
Drawing from the history of art and design as well as his personal life, it references capital punishment in the US and how electricity was used by the Chilean junta as an instrument of torture and frequent power cuts to isolate and control citizens.
Representing Chile at the 2009 Venice Biennale, his wall of 13 one-way mirrored aluminium doorways outlined in glowing neons matched the rainbow hues of Ellsworth Kelly’s Spectrum series of monochromatic, vertical canvases arranged in succession.
Ivan was just a year old when General Augusto Pinochet seized power in Chile in 1973 in a coup d’etat that overthrew democratically-elected President Salvador Allende.
Growing up in the shadow of a bloody, 20-year military dictatorship that left thousands dead or missing in Santiago, he lived in constant fear of being made to “disappear” after the torture and imprisonment of his father, a political cartoonist, graphic designer and socialist university dean in charge of the propaganda department.
“It was always that feeling of not knowing,” he recalls. “My parents always thought that some catastrophic situation might happen. People were shooting outside and there were constant blackouts and water cuts, so we had to store water and keep a battery-operated radio, candles and flashlights.
“We couldn’t trust anyone. We had to be very careful, mind our own business, go to work or school and then go straight home. At around 9pm each night, a curfew kept people under control. This is very similar to what we’re living now, but it was way more violent.”
Initially dreaming of becoming a set designer, Ivan applied to design school but was refused admission. As fate would have it, he ended up studying art at the Pontifical Catholic University of Chile in Santiago and mixing with classmates from the design, architecture and urbanism departments.
“In my mind, any survival strategy is in itself a form of art; that is my deepest source of inspiration.”Ivan Navarro
“I didn’t want to study art because my father, mother and brother were artists, and I thought we didn’t need another artist in the family,” he discloses.
“But my art school was very rich in knowledge that I could exchange with other students. When I realised that, I decided it would be better to stay instead of switching schools. I couldn’t change my destiny.”
As an adolescent, Ivan attended underground music parties and concluded that music was not only an expression of artistic freedom and a means of escape, but it could also be an opposing force and act of resistance that countered the loud music used to torture people in Chile.
Today, he’s a music producer, runs the record label Hueso Records and releases vinyl discs of songs recorded during the Pinochet dictatorship that he rediscovered after going through his cassette tapes from that time.
“In my 20s, protest music was way more accessible than going to clandestine exhibitions by conceptual artists who criticised the dictatorship. This was very elitist because they were for a certain group of intellectuals,” he notes.
“Music was full of energy and more open because you didn’t even need an instrument to create. If you were a poet, you just needed your voice to sing or recite a piece. Those things were common at the time and influential to me.”
Today, he creates stationary works that visualise sound by playing a piece in deafening silence. Percussion instruments housing luminous, endlessly-reflected onomatopoeic words like “Slap”, “Bang” or “Beat” are repeated to abstraction until they become meaningless. Removing the original functionality of a drum, he writes the word “Bomb” in neon on one side and “Blow” on the reverse, evoking music and violence.
Planetarium, Ivan’s exhibition at Galerie Templon in Paris that ended last March, marked the first time he’d used paint as a medium. In 2020, he returned to a more handmade production due to restrictions from the Covid-19 pandemic while collecting images of nebulae (clouds of interstellar gas and dust) at the same time.
Considered astronomy’s world capital, Chile has the majority of the global infrastructure – mainly observatories and telescopes – as the skies over the north of the country are very clear, so many enthusiasts visit it to commune with the cosmos.
Mixing lightboxes and paint, Ivan recreated 3D paintings – from US$32,000 (S$42,600) to US$115,000 – that appear to capture fragments of cosmic landscapes.
His nebulae works appear as stellar, otherworldly explosions with their swirls of stained-glass paint over panes of glass and dots ground out on a mirror with a handheld Dremel rotary tool to allow light from the LEDs to penetrate.
In the pipeline is a vast public installation for the Villejuif – Institut Gustave-Roussy metro station of the Grand Paris Express designed by French architect Dominique Perrault and set to open in 2026.
Entitled Cadran Solaire (Sundial), Ivan’s artwork comprises 300 lightboxes, each bearing the name of a star that can be seen from earth with the naked eye in different languages.
“It’s a unique history of ancient to recent languages from all over the world. Every time a new star is found, it usually gets a name connected to the geographical place of its discovery.”
No Se Puede Mirrar, a 2013 installation with a one-way mirror that translates to “No One Can See” in English.
A park bench with neon lights that outline South America that went on show in Ivan’s solo exhibition at Cent Quatre in Paris.
Traffic, his 2015 installation with traffic lights, that went on show in Ivan’s solo exhibition at Cent Quatre in Paris.
Artworks at Galerie Templon.
Nebula II, a 2020 artwork made with hand-painted mirror glass, LED light, wood and aluminium.
A version of this article first appeared in Home & Decor