After flying into JFK airport one recent evening, a loquacious Bangladeshi cabby drove me home. He talked about a mansion-lined block in his neighborhood of Ditmas Park, and about one residence in particular that he called “the White House.” Every once in a while, he said, he walks there to sit on a sidewalk bench and admire it, imagining the day he’ll finally own his own home. “I close my eyes and I pretend that I am in heaven,” he confided.
I thought about him recently while visiting Chilean artist Ivan Navarro’s public installation in Madison Square Park, titled This Land Is Your Land, which was put on by the Madison Square Park Conservancy. It was an unusually warm day, and the winter sun was casting a golden light over the three water towers that make up the work. Brought down to the park lawn from the city’s rooftops where they usually perch, the vessels now resembled makeshift shelters or even alien spacecraft — a playful allusion, perhaps, to the tenuous nature of belonging.
Never had a water tower — its silhouette ubiquitous to New York’s skyline — been examined so carefully. Each was elevated eight feet above the ground on black stilts, and locals and tourists approached them curiously, standing beneath and craning their necks upward to see the contents within. Inside, text and images glowed in neon light, transmitting messages that, while open to interpretation, capture a shared immigrant experience.
In the first tower, the words “me” and “we” repeated vertically as though into infinity, an illusion made possible by carefully positioned mirrors. The visual similarities between the words caused them to appear jumbled together, conveying the fluctuating personal and political identities that immigrants must negotiate. In the second, “Bed” expressed the craving for rest and for home — a familiar place at the end of the day where you can feel comfortable again in your own skin. The third held a simple ladder, alluding not only to the socioeconomic climb that often motivates migrants but also to an escape route — whether from poverty, tyranny, or violence.
It’s not the first time an artist has used water towers in an artwork. In 1998, the British sculptor Rachel Whiteread installed a translucent resin cast of one on a Soho rooftop as her first public sculpture in the United States. More recently in 2012, Brooklyn artist Tom Fruin transformed an old water tower in Dumbo into a stained-glass temple made of steel and salvaged plexiglass. In both cases, the artists appropriated an ever-present but overlooked form, transforming what was considered mundane into something majestic.
Similarly, Navarro reclaims the humble structures as contemporary Statues of Liberty, casting light on an entire class of people we sometimes fail to notice. New York has more than three million immigrants. They work on Wall Street and in Chinatown; in glass-encased offices and fruit-filled bodegas. They are cooks, doctors, nannies, executives, and cab drivers. The installation examines their identity and desire to share in America’s bounty.
But the water towers, more often filled with a precious resource we all need to survive, also remind us how much we have in common. After all, New York is a city where people of all backgrounds come to pursue their dreams. As American folk singer Woody Guthrie wrote in the 1940 song for which the work is named: “I’ve roamed and rambled and I’ve followed my footsteps / To the sparkling sands of her diamond deserts / And all around me a voice was sounding / this land was made for you and me.”
This Land Is Your Land continues at Madison Square Park, Manhattan through April 13.