Juan Downey: “Una utopía de la comunicación”
Museo Rufino Tamayo
Mexico City, Mexico
The invisible architect becomes one with the energy and manipulates this wave material.1
“Una utopía de la comunicación”, currently at the Museo Rufino Tamayo in Mexico City, features the works of the late Chilean artist Juan Downey (1940-1993). In the 1970s he pioneered the use of new video technology, which attracted artists because of its portability, low cost and instant feedback, and I think he would have enjoyed that museumgoers can now read his handwritten notebooks on an iPad. Trained as an architect, Downey explored language, consciousness, documentary film, anthropology, the meaning of art, and art history in Europe and the Americas. He was deeply influenced by anthropologist Gregory Bateson, Marshall McLuhan, Buckminster Fuller, and the study of cybernetics. Like Bateson’s metalogues, Downey’s works are a conversation between mechanical, biological, cognitive, and social systems, where the catalyst of change is contained in the very structure of the argument. His first US retrospective “Juan Downey: The Invisible Architect” was held last year at MIT’s List Visual Arts Center and the Bronx Museum of the Arts, and the Tamayo show presents many of the same works, including “Plato Now”, “The Invisible Eye series”, “Video Trans Americas”, and many beautiful topographical drawings and installations. His fearless and intellectually bracing work points to the connectivity of all points in the universe and is a welcome respite from popular culture’s relentless consumerism and the siren calls of apocalyptic thinking.
When Downey moved from Chile to Europe in the early 60s, his art focused on traditional painting, drawing, and printmaking. He lived in Madrid, Barcelona, finally blossoming in the artistic, cultural and political climate of Paris. The influence of Jean Tinguely’s Metamechanics, Yves Klein’s performance work and “Architecture of the Air,” and Downey’s personal friendships with artists Roberto Matta and Vassilakis Takis led him to experiment with non-traditional art forms and electromagnetic fields. On Takis’s urging, he accepted an invitation to work in Washington, D.C. Later he moved to New York City where he lived for the rest of his life, working and collaborating with a small group of experimental artists such as Trisha Brown and Gordon Matta-Clark.
The show at the Museo Rufino Tamayo includes documentation of “Plato Now”, an interactive, electronic version of Plato’s Cave created in 1973. A row of meditators were seated facing a wall and wired to brainwave analyzers. Their shadows were projected on the wall behind them while a live monitor displayed a close-up of each meditator’s face. The piece was first shown at Corcoran Gallery in Washington, D.C. and was recreated at Tate Britain last year. The mix of invisible energy of the human mind, video, audio recordings and electronic feedback created “wave material”, the radiant energy, Downey felt was shared by everything in the universe we inhabit.
“Video Trans America” (1973 to 1979) led Downey to travel the length of the Americas. With his wife and stepdaughter he made several videos with the Yanomami tribes in the Amazon Jungle, in particular “The Laughing Alligator” (1979). Downey was among the many explorers of human consciousness in the 60s and 70s who looked to Eastern religion, drugs meditation, bio feedback, and art to try to understand the nature of consciousness and human existence. Philosopher and ethnobotanist Terrence McKenna believed that the boundaries between machines, animals, plants, biotechnology, and art were becoming more fluid and would lead to a transformation of human consciousness, and he traveled to the Amazon in search of transformative experience, which he found through indigenous shamanism and the psychoactive plant “ayahuasca”. Downey’s belief in an “invisible architecture” led him to the Amazon with a video camera in search of a “dematerialized city,” a complex, natural communication system in contact with the divine.
In Yanomami creation myth, fire–the beginning of civilization–is born from the mouth of an alligator, and in “The Laughing Alligator”, Downey says he wants to be eaten by the Yanomami “not as an act of self sacrifice . . . but as a demonstration of the ultimate architecture: to inhabit, to dwell physically as well as psychically, inside the human beings who would eventually eat me.” By handing the camera to the Yanomami, Downey turns Western anthropology on its head: We never know if the Yanomami are laughing at Downey or if they are laughing at themselves laughing at Downey. In one scene they aim their weapons at him as he points his camera at them. In another, Downey appears to be trapped inside the video monitor itself as he yells “Let me outta here! Where’s the chief! Who’s in charge!” Competing narratives shift the ground from under our feet, and laughter collapses our familiar world, reaffirming the ultimate mystery of life.2
“The Thinking Eye” series show the influence of European philosophers Michel Foucault, Roland Barthes, as well as American art historian Leo Steinberg. Along with videographer Kirk von Heflin, Downey stretched the limits of documentary by using split screens and repeating images. Works in this series include a provocative visual essay on signs entitled “Information Withheld” (1983), “Hard Times and Culture: Part One, Vienna ‘fin-de-siecle’” (1990), a speculation on art, commodity, and society, and a study (1975) of “Velázquez’s Las Meninas”. Downey was obsessed with this painting: the young Infanta surrounded by her maids of honor, two dwarfs, a dog, a chaperone, and a bodyguard are all gathered together in a room in King Phillip’s palace. Also in the picture is Velázquez himself working at a large canvas and looking outwards. In the background there is a mirror reflecting the King and Queen who appear to be outside the picture’s space in a position similar to the viewer’s. The series explores the nature of the viewer’s gaze, signs, symbols, mirrors, interior architecture spaces, the spaces between things, reflections, mediated spaces, and art discourse.
Downey’s works are meditations on the act of mirroring and on the fact that sign, symbols, and art itself are mirrors or metaphors for human consciousness. Downey traced his heritage through Europe and the Americas, following the intellectual threads that wove the tapestry of his cultural and intellectual identity. But he eventually dissolved his identity in the luminous electronic liquid light of his videos, the beauty of his drawings, and in diagrams that try to describe the animating sacred element he found in all people and things. I find his art as rich and rewarding today as it was when it was created.
1. Downey, Juan. “Invisible Architect.” On Site # 4 (1973).
2. Taussig, Michael. “A Lesson in Looking and Laughing: Juan Downey’s Amazing Yanomani Video The Laughing Alligator.” Valerie Smith, ed. Juan Downey: The Invisible Architect. (New York: Bronx Museum of the Arts/MIT List Visual Arts Center, 2011). p. 41.
3. Cordova, Amalia, “AFTEREFFECTS: Mapping the experimental ethnography of Juan Down in The Invisible Architect. The Brooklyn Rail 4 June 2012.
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-Contributed by Lani Asher