Chilean-born artist Juan Downey (1940 – 1993) is best known as a pioneer videomaker who persistently pushed the boundaries between ethnography, autobiography, and media arts, immersing himself in a quest to explore issues of identity in the Americas and in Western culture, and bridging indigenous worldviews with cutting-edge, experimental communication technologies. He received innumerable awards and grants for his work, which comprises over 40 media pieces, before dying of cancer in 1993.
The long-overdue first U.S. retrospective of his work is currently on view at the Bronx Museum, offering a concise yet representative sampling of his major works. Drawings, artist notebooks, paintings, engravings, photographs, video-installations, and full-length video works are respectfully laid out in roughly chronological order, and a bilingual (English/Spanish) catalog lovingly assembled by curator Valerie Smith rounds out the succinct wall text that introduces Downey’s obsession with invisible forces, giving context to each section of works.
A trained architect from an affluent family in Santiago, Downey moved to Paris in 1963 to study engraving and see European art first-hand. Drawings and writings from this period—and an actual engraving, a real rarity—open the three galleries of The Invisible Architect, introducing the spatial and conceptual elements that mark his work. While he worked throughout his life in drawing, painting, and graphics, he began exploring new technologies in the ’60s, creating electronic sculptures in which photoelectric cells activated sound and light with the movements of spectators. Several drawings serve as conceptual blueprints for these interactive installations, all defining elements in Downey’s liminal forays into performance and exhibition.
Downey worked and taught briefly in Washington, D.C., and in 1970 settled in New York City where he was active in the vibrant experimental art scene and began exploring emerging interactive technologies. He was linked to the Perception group and to Radical Software and was an exclusive artist of the Leo Castelli Gallery. In 1968, with the availability of the first video cameras, Downey became one of the first to adopt the new format, marking an important change in his artistic career. His video work is distributed by Electronic Arts Intermix and Video Data Bank.
In response to the 1973 coup d’état in Chile, Downey embarked on a journey by land from New York to southern Chile. The road trip video diary that resulted became the basis of a series and installation called Video Trans Americas (V.T.A., 1973–1977), which is the centerpiece of the exhibition and marks a departure from Downey’s kinetic installations toward an audiovisual exploration of Latin American identity and politics. In his artist’s statement from 1976, Downey states that the piece intends to “stretch the limits of the documentary format, to convey the intensely personal experience of which the primitive landscape is composed, by means of organized sequences of body movements and natural rhythms.” This journey would change the lives of Downey and his family, as he delved into the pre- and post-colonial history of the continent, later living in Yanomami territory in southern Venezuela for eight months with his wife and stepdaughter. Selections from the series of drawings made during this time, titled Meditations, and two of the notable video works on Yanomami culture are also presented in this show, as are drawings made by the Yanomami themselves during his stay.
Downey’s work is not only pioneering in its technological and stylistic innovation, but in its cultural and representational approach. Downey considered the act of videotaping an act of mirroring: In seeking out the Yanomami he also sought to mirror and find himself, while, at the same time, he wished to show the Yanomami to themselves and to those who would eventually see them through his videos. In fact, one of the most famous images taken by Downey of a Yanomami is reproduced in the catalog: the moment he traded places with a friend who allowed himself to be photographed shooting video.
Downey rejected the idea of an objective view; he often used split-screen and multi-channel formats in his videos, narrated them in the first person (as in written ethnography), and even appeared in them in different guises, including that of a ritually painted Yanomami. He recorded and quoted from his hosts and contrasted their images with interviews with “specialists,” offering a humanizing and often ironic counter-narrative at a time when the Yanomami were being constructed by anthropologists as disappearing and inherently “fierce” (as in Napoleon Chagnon’s Yanomamö: The Fierce People, published in 1968). Downey would intercut footage from the Amazon with scenes of his life in New York City, in works like The Laughing Alligator (1979) (which can be seen in its entirety in a viewing room in loop with earlier documentaries The Abandoned Shabono  and Guahibos ), situating these communities as contemporary to his life and to the rest of the world, a radical move when “fly-on-the-wall” ethnography was in vogue. Most famous is his on-screen comment of wanting “to be eaten” by the Indians as an ultimate act of architecture, to literally inhabit the other (an idea which Michael Taussig’s essay in the exhibition catalog expands upon) and to play with the West’s morbid fascination with cannibalism in its hearts of darkness.
The exhibition closes with two later video installations, About Cages (1986), which features live birds balancing and singing around a central monitor, and Rewe (1991), a modular sculpture made of piled monitors that comments on the myth of European discovery of the Americas (“rewe” is a Mapuche word for a ceremonial bridge or axis to the heavens). Screens in the room play loops of the Thinking Eye series, which draws attention back to the European gaze and furthers the idea of mirroring. Works in this series include the study of Velasquez’s painting, Las Meninas (Maids of Honor, 1975), Information Withheld (1983), a provocative visual essay on signs, and Hard Times and Culture: Part One, Vienna ‘fin-de-siecle’ (1990), a speculation on art, commodity, and society.
Downey’s body of video work maintains an uneasy relationship to visual anthropology; too aesthetic and self-reflexive for the classical study of the Other, he is often overlooked in the teaching of early visual anthropology and ethnography. However, he is highly regarded in the art world as an imaginative early media artist, as well as in the field of indigenous media, for producing thought-provoking, challenging, and profound visual commentaries on Western and indigenous culture, through unprecedented practices of collaborative video-making and what we could perhaps call experimental auto-ethnography. Downey’s work ultimately collapses the boundaries of inside and outside, of self and other, as he seeks to mirror and make visible the interconnectedness of all peoples, engaging the social, the political, and the physical body in his work.
Juan Downey: The Invisible Architect is on view at the Bronx Museum of the Arts through June 10, 2012 (http://bronxmuseum.org, open Thursday through Sunday, with free admission).