“What struck me most was Juan’s faith in the idea that somehow all these disparate elements – the ethereal and the visceral, the contemporary and the ancient – could coexist perfectly well in a twentieth-century electronic artwork. This was no small feat at that particular time in art history.”
–Artist Bill Viola (quoted in the catalogue for Juan Downey: The Invisible Architect)
When Marilys Belt de Downey, widow of the Chilean-born artist Juan Downey, spoke at the opening of her late husband’s retrospective at the ASU Art Museum in Tempe, on Sept. 30, 2011, she told the audience that although Downey died in 1993 (he was only 53 years old), he is still very much here. She even walked the group around to a large photograph of her husband and “introduced” them to him.
Spending time in the three galleries that house Juan Downey: The Invisible Architect will convince you that Marilys is absolutely right: Juan Downey is still with us, in influence as well as in spirit. This fascinating, bewildering, brilliant exhibition charts the course of Downey’s idiosyncratic career, from his early experiments with the first portable video camera (which weighed 60 pounds!), paralleling those of fellow pioneers like Nam June Paik, to his later meditative, autobiographical maps, which foreshadow by decades the current art-world fascination with maps and mapping.
The show, the first U.S. museum retrospective of Downey’s work, opened at the MIT List Visual Arts Center and will travel to the Bronx Museum of the Arts after it closes here. These three venues – MIT, the ASU Art Museum and the Bronx Museum – are the only stops, and, of the three, ASU Art Museum is the only institution to exhibit Anaconda Map of Chile (pictured below, in a photo by Craig Smith), a significant and politically charged piece of Downey’s from the early 70s that incorporates a live anaconda.
To show the piece, the ASU Art Museum first borrowed the wood and plexiglass structure, which measures about 5 feet by 7 feet, stands 19 inches tall, and is lined with a map of Chile that Downey hand colored, from the Juan Downey Foundation. Then our curatorial staff tracked down a local anaconda to take up residence in the piece for the course of the exhibition. Those, as you can imagine, were some interesting phone calls.
Diablo, our anaconda in residence, nearly died at the hands of an ignorant owner when he was a younger snake. He was rescued by Russ Johnson, head of the Phoenix Herpetological Society, who nursed him back to shiny health. His presence in the Museum is almost electric, although there are many visitors who assume that the six-foot constrictor is a fake – until they see him move or flick his tongue at them. As impressive as he is purely on his own merits, Diablo also serves to reference both South America and the Anaconda Copper Mining Company, including the latter’s role in the rise to power of the Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet.
Just beyond Diablo’s enclosure is a darkened space in which you can sit and watch Downey’s later videos, a rich collage of sound, image and ideas. Combining philosophy, art history, technology and cultural studies, Downey explores the nature of perception and of connection, two preoccupations that thread through his work from beginning to end. These twin preoccupations also thread through The Invisible Architect, from Downey’s drawings of his early projects, like The Human Voice: A Time Space Situation for the Ears, to the black-and-white video Fresh Air, in which Downey recorded an art “action” by Gordon Matta-Clark on Wall Street (shades of today), to the hypnotic “meditation” drawings Downey did while he was living with the Yanomami in the mid-1970s.
The whole is a powerful, idiosyncratic trip that you won’t soon forget.
In keeping with Marilys Downey’s assertion that Juan Downey is still somehow with us, here’s another quote from video artist Bill Viola (who makes an appearance in Plato Now, one of the video works on view in The Invisible Architect). Viola is talking about Downey’s ability to blend so many disparate elements into one work successfully:
“…Of course, this was only made possible by the vision of a brilliant contemporary artist encountering the soul of an ancient Greek philosopher and, in peripatetic fashion, deciding to take a long walk together under the trees, immersed in conversation. I imagine he’s still there, engaged in dialogue and conversation.”
NOTE: Juan Downey: The Invisible Architect has been selected as an Artforum Critic’s Pick.
–Deborah Sussman, PR Specialist, ASU Art Museum