An artist traces the border with wood and metaphor | WBEZ
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Video: Sculptor Juan Angel Chavez traces hidden meaning along the border

Chicago artist Juan Angel Chavez recalls a Latin pop song he heard on a recent trip back to his home state of Chihuahua, Mexico. It offered tongue-in-cheek advice to would-be immigrants trying to cross the border into the U.S. “Try not to look like you’re from Neptune,” the lyrics advise. In other words, if you want to cross successfully, try to blend in. Don’t stand out.

The song’s witticism inspired the title of a new piece by Chavez currently on display at the National Museum of Mexican Art in Chicago’s Pilsen neighborhood. Neptuno is a gallery-sized wooden sculpture meant to evoke one of the many underground smugglers tunnels used to transport contraband - including people - from one side of the U.S.- Mexican border to the other. As is the case with real smugglers tunnels, Chavez wanted his to hide in plain sight. The piece is camouflaged: made to look like a giant fallen log, built from scrap wood and building materials scavenged from alleys and workshops around the museum.

The tunnel is also a metaphor for the overall experience of border crossing, which Chavez knows first hand. Chavez says he came to the U.S. legally in 1985 when he was 13 years old. But over the years, and especially since 9/11, concerns about terrorism and drug trafficking have made border crossing a much more difficult proposition than it was in his youth. Those dangers are more than about one’s immigration status: Border-crossers may also encounter Mexican federales, drug cartels, or Minutemen as they navigate the layers of power and authority that exist in the space between the two countries.

In the video above, Chavez describes his experiences at the border and explains why he was inspired to bring a rogue tunnel into the rarefied world of art.

Neptuno by Juan Angel Chavez is on display at the National Museum of Mexican Art in Pilsen through January 8, 2012. Art/Work features contemporary visual artists exhibiting in Chicago talking about the inspiration and perspiration behind their creative endeavors.

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