March 26, 2014
There is a certain level of purposeful ambiguity in the work of conceptual artist Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle. His installations, sculptures, and videos provoke reflection and discussion on very concrete issues—surveillance, architecture, war—but the works fall short of giving away too much of the artist’s own perspective. He says that even the most formal of his works is ultimately political, but that he has no wish to reveal his position. Manglano-Ovalle wishes art to be “a platform from which to speak but not tell you something."1 For him, art is not the object, but what is said about the object.2
Some of the subjects Manglano-Ovalle tackles, such as immigration, draw closely from his own life. The artist, who is a professor at Northwestern University and earned his MFA at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago in 1989, was born in Madrid but first moved to the United States when he was an infant; his family then frequently moved between Madrid, Bogotá, and the U.S. He says he developed, from an early age, a view of the world as small. It wasn’t until he grew older that he learned that borders existed.3
When the U.S. General Services Administration (GSA) asked Manglano-Ovalle to propose a work for the Citizenship and Immigration Services (USCIS) District Headquarters in Chicago, Manglano-Ovalle’s hometown, he accepted the invitation because many people he knows have been through the building as “clients,” and the opportunity allowed him to engage with this community.4 Manglano-Ovalle’s piece, La Tormenta/The Storm (2006), comprises two identical 10-by-11-by-16-foot cloud sculptures, created in collaboration with architect Douglas Garofalo. The 1,500-pound fiberglass clouds are covered in titanium-alloy foil and hang in the atrium of the building.
Manglano-Ovalle sees waves of immigration like thunderstorms, carrying the potential for both destruction and productivity. The storm clouds in La Tormenta are an analogy for the turbulence one experiences when arriving at a new country; this turbulence, he says, is accompanied by both hope and anxiety.5 This analogy prods a viewer to ask which aspects of the storm bring life and which bring destruction, unsheathing the value judgments of immigration policy from bureaucratic and legal obfuscation.
Though the GSA acknowledges the relationship between La Tormenta and immigration, the agency’s own documents on the work stress its formal qualities before even mentioning immigration. (The City of Chicago’s Public Art Program description of the work says nothing at all about immigration).6 The GSA explains the interesting fact that Manglano-Ovalle’s clouds are based on a 2002 storm that passed from Missouri to Illinois and was tracked by the Department of Atmospheric Sciences at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. Researchers used “laser and digital technologies” to map and model the storm system, later sharing it with Manglano-Ovalle. La Tormenta is modeled after the “contours of the storm’s core moments before it erupted.”7 The GSA may emphasize this backstory over the work’s meditation on immigration because La Tormenta confronts the day-to-day operations of the USCIS.
La Tormenta differs from works such as the Statue of Liberty that offer, at least explicitly, a more heroic and optimistic message on immigration. La Tormenta evokes the turmoil that immigration can cause—for individuals, for their new home, and even for their country of origin. On the other hand, La Tormenta is expressing within the walls of the federal gatekeeper that, like the necessity of the life-giving thunderstorm, the U.S. needs immigrants to thrive. Every visa application denied in that building is in conversation with La Tormenta. With the imagery of the storm, the significance of these decisions hangs over the heads of government officials and immigrants alike.
Manglano-Ovalle has tackled the issue of immigration in other, less solemn ways, such as in his cheeky Search (En Búsqueda) (2001), which debuted as part of InSITE 2000, a transnational arts project that offered exhibitions and public art throughout San Diego and Tijuana.8 Riffing off of radio-astronomy observatories, such as the Very Large Array seen in the 1997 sci-fi blockbuster Contact, Manglano-Ovalle turned the Plaza Monumental Bullfight Ring in Tijuana—located only 50 meters south of the U.S. border—into a radio telescope. The conical amphitheater served as a giant radio dish, with the bullring covered by an actual receiving dish and an antenna suspended above. In this form, the stadium searched for “aliens,” purportedly extraterrestrials, but its proximity to the U.S. border evokes searches for the nearly 12 million undocumented immigrants—illegal aliens—in the U.S.
At the bullring, fifty subwoofers projected the feedback between the antenna and the dish. One writer described the combination of the speakers’ hum and the crashing of waves from the nearby Pacific Ocean as “surreal.”9 This infrasound wave, this alien from space, permeated the smug and imposing border fence like it was nothing, like political careers weren’t built upon and families torn apart by it.
In addition to the experience created onsite, Search functioned as a radio station that transmitted sounds it received from space across the FM spectrum throughout Tijuana and parts of San Diego. The frequency of the broadcast changed continuously, making it difficult to find the transmission. Diabolically, because the space sounds were static, someone scanning through the FM spectrum would find it hard to know if he or she was hearing Search or just run-of-the-mill radio noise.
Manglano-Ovalle says that only those who weren’t looking for the signal could find it. He mentions reports of Tijuana cabdrivers, who would listen to the same station for an extended period, perceiving and then discussing these radio interruptions. One such report supposedly attributed the disturbances to extraterrestrials.10
While the terrestrial aliens Search refers to—that is, immigrants from Mexico and elsewhere—don’t have the freedom of these space-alien signals and sound waves, the work speaks to the arbitrariness and futility of both borders and grandstanding searches for undocumented immigrants. Though often with serious repercussions, humans have, since the inventions of borders and citizenship, passed through borders like an elusive sound wave or rogue radio transmission. Manglano-Ovalle bluntly calls Search a joke—but, he says, “In Tijuana, everyone got the joke.”11
As political as they are, La Tormenta and Search don’t suggest specific problems or solutions. One can infer critiques of U.S. immigration policy in these works, but the natures of those critiques remain vague. Manglano-Ovalle’s policy position is unknowable, and he avoids playing the role of amateur legislator; rather than action, the artist’s aim is discussion. Cab drivers talking about his work in a cafe is the ultimate success.
- "Ecology," Art21, Public Broadcasting Service, November 1, 2007, http://video.pbs.org/video/1239798902/
- “Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle,” General Services Administration, accessed March 12, 2014, http://www.gsa.gov/graphics/pbs/89_Inigo_Manglano-Ovalle.pdf
- Krzysztof Wodiczko’s famous The Tijuana Projection (2001) was performed during InSITE 2000 as well.
- Bill Kelley Jr., “InSITE2000 San Diego/ Tijuana,” LatinArt.com, accessed, March 12, 2014, http://www.latinart.com/exview.cfm?id=3
- Iñigo Manglano-Ovalle in “Information and the Reluctant Image,” MAS Context, Fall 2010, http://www.mascontext.com/issues/7-information-fall-10/information-and-the-reluctant-image/
- "Ecology," Art21