They are as much a symbol of New York City as the Empire State and Chrysler Buildings, but far more humble. The wooden water towers that dot the city’s rooflines seem like relics from an older era, and yet they still provide water to thousands of buildings, doing their job well enough that centuries of technological advances have failed to render them entirely obsolete.
Photo by James Ewing Photography / courtesy Madison Square Park Conservancy
For his exhibition This Land Is Your Land, Chilean-born, Brooklyn-based artist Iván Navarro planted three replicas of these surprisingly enduring pieces of the cityscape in the middle of Madison Square Park. Smaller in size than the real thing, Navarro’s 7-foot in diameter containers stand eight feet in the air, raised on metal platforms. Inside the wooden tanks, the artist has placed three of his signature installations, seemingly infinite spaces constructed with mirrors and neon tubes. While his work often creates these trompe l'oeil voids in walls and floors, in the park, viewers look up into the base of the water towers to discover an improbable vastness. Each interior is emblazoned with a different neon configuration. One spells out “ME” and, in mirror, “WE”. Another appears to endlessly repeat the word “bed.” And the last presents a neon ladder that ascends into infinity. The result is a series of selfie-ready spectacles contained in unassuming wooden structures.
Record spoke with Navarro about his attraction to the towers, the exhibition’s Woody Guthrie-referencing title, and the challenges of creating work for a public park. His installation, organized by the Madison Square Park Conservancy, remains on view through April 13.
Why did you decided to house these installations in water towers?
In some ways it was a very practical decision. The way that I work requires controlled light, and in the park, I needed to provide shelter from the rain. I also needed to translate my usual process to a public setting with city rules. I thought about making wells, but I had to keep the grass. I also couldn’t touch the trees. That’s how I came up with the water towers.
But there is also a historical component that I like. When songs like “This Land Is Your Land” by Woodie Guthrie and other kinds of what was called “hobo music” were popular, people who travelled by train would see these water towers above a town and know that they could find temporary work there. You only need them for larger structures, so they were a sign of some kind of industrialization.
Now, here in New York, they are more of a tourist attraction and a symbol of the city. What was interesting for me was the idea of looking up and seeing the towers. That action—like “This Land Is Your Land”—is always a metaphor for some kind of utopian idea.
How does that idea come into play with the neon inside the towers?
The ladder is related to looking up and ascending, again it’s utopian. The relationship between “ME” and “WE” has to do with democracy and your relationship to your society. And then the idea of “bed” somehow symbolized home, your niche in the city. All those ideas are connected to fixing a place in a city of anonymous people.
So these are points of orientation as much as symbols?
I wanted to bring down objects that are literally far away and let people interact with them. I often think of a water tower as the crown of the building. They are always the last thing before the sky, and they’re untouchable in a way. The idea was to bring them down and take a close-up.