Juan Downey: ‘The Thinking Eye’ (1974-1989)

Avant-garde is not usually a word that one might associate with Chile; however the controversial and innovative work of Juan Downey successfully puts the two side by side.

Santiago Chile

‘The Thinking Eye’ exhibition proves Chile to be a country responsible for producing one of the leading pioneers of the video-art movement. Juan Downey was a man who saw and explored the potential of television, prior to it becoming the most powerful medium of our times. He dreamt of “cybernetic utopias” before PCs ever existed. It is therefore not surprising that La Fundación Telefónica has chosen to put on an exhibition of his work in order to commemorate the Bicentenary.

Santiago Chile

The exhibition encompasses the sheer breadth of Downey’s talent, containing works produced in a variety of media: sketches, paintings, films and installations. It offers an eye-opening and hard-hitting window into the mind of this extraordinary man. The two installations that include live animals are the pieces that immediately arrest the visitor’s attention.

‘About Cages’ (1987) consists of a large backlit cage with a television screen suspended in the middle. On the screen is a video of a canary, and contained in the cage around the screen are several live canaries. This piece is accompanied by a voice-over of extracts taken from Anne Frank’s diary as well as extracts from those tortured during the Pinochet regime. It compels the audience to compare the repressive regime of Nazi Germany with that of Chile under Pinochet with the concept of a caged bird.

‘Map of Chile’ is a large glass tank, with a map of Chile painted on the floor and an enormous, live anaconda sprawled across it. This piece is designed to represent the way in which Downey, who lived in New York from 1970 up until his death in 1993, felt uprooted from his homeland.

Santiago Chile

Although Downey played a major part in the New York art movement of the 1970s, he continued to be conscious of his Latin American roots. A constant preoccupation with identity is obvious throughout his work and is strongly demonstrated by one of the most extensive and revolutionary of his projects: ‘Trans Americas,’ arguably the centerpiece of the exhibition.

In 1973 Downey embarked on a series of journeys that carried him from New York to a diverse range of countries on the American continent: Mexico, Guatemala, Peru, Bolivia and Chile. He filmed the indigenous cultures of each location and then showed the playback to both the indigenous people themselves and others he encountered along the way. His use of playback was revolutionary and he has been credited, in the words of David Ross, as a “cultural communicator, anthropologist and aesthetic activator, whose medium of visual expression is video.”

The outcome of this journey was not only conveyed in film and photographs but also through drawings. In the midst of his travels he chose to immerse himself in the Amazon rainforest in Venezuela. There he lived for several months with one of the world’s most isolated and primitive tribes: the Yanomami.

Santiago Chile

During this time he dedicated himself to making drawings. These drawings combine Downey’s former training as an architect with his anthropological interests to produce a groundbreaking ethnographic observation.

Although abstract, the detailed studies relate the circular structure of the shabano huts in which the tribe live with the social organization of the Yanomami. This concept combined with the way in which Downey presented the unedited reality of ‘playback’ to the indigenous people make his ‘Trans Americas’ study a truly original and arresting work of art.

On his return to New York, at the end of the 1970s, up until his death in 1993, Downey continued making videos that spoke about the media and the influence of mass culture. In the series of videos that make up ‘The Thinking Eye,’ Downey studies aspects of Western Culture in an attempt to resolve his identity.

The section of the exhibition that focuses on the theme of Chile clearly demonstrates Downey’s political affinities and ideologies. As a Socialist living outside of Chile during the Pinochet regime, some of his work is designed to openly criticize the dictatorship. One of the pieces shows video footage of socialist graffiti and workers protesting accompanied by a voice-over of the last speech Allende made to the Chilean public. Moreover, there is footage of interviews with university professors who lectured during the Pinochet years, talking about how their role as educators and innovators was restricted by the regime.

The sheer diversity of the exhibition makes it a must. Whether it is from a historical, anthropological, artistic or purely aesthetic perspective, there is bound to be a part of it that will capture your interest.

‘El Ojo Pensante’
Runs until June 27, 2010
Monday 9:00 am to 2 pm
Tuesday to Sunday 9:00 am to 7:00 pm
Free entry for all
Sala de Arte Fundación Telefónica
Providencia 111
Santiago, Chile
Metro Baquedano

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