Courtesy: Marilys Belt Downey
Juan Downey, Mi casa en la playa, Courtesy: Marilys Belt Downey

Juan Downey: The Invisible Architect at List Visual Arts Center, MIT

Juan Downey: The Invisible Architect. Curated by Valerie Smith. List Visual Arts Center, MIT, Cambridge, Massachusetts, USA. May 5, 2011- July 10, 2011.

The exhibition Juan Downey: The Invisible Architect is the first major survey in the United States featuring the work of the Chilean-born and mainly New York-based, Juan Downey. Beautifully installed at MIT’s List Visual Arts Center, the show is a homecoming of sorts for the late artist who was a fellow at the university’s Center for Advanced Visual Studies in 1973 and 1975. This much-anticipated exhibition draws from select projects from throughout Downey’s career, from his early forays into cybernetic sculpture in the 1960s to video installations and related projects based on his extensive travels throughout Central and South America in the mid-1970s, as well as his extensive meditations on the intersections of opticality, mirrors, semiotic theory, and European culture, particularly Baroque art and music.

Curator Valerie Smith has organized the exhibition around the rubric of “invisible architecture,” a concept developed by the artist in the early 1970s. In one of the several artist’s notebooks generously displayed throughout the exhibition Downey offered insight into the term: “we call invisible architecture: an opening to an era of total communication when ultra-developed human minds will be telepathically cellular to an electromagnetic whole.” Given our present digitized existence and concerns of environmental decline, this utopian drive towards a universal society constructed, not by physical architecture, but out of forms of electronic communication in total sync with the organic world seems highly prophetic. As a framework for the exhibition, “invisible architecture” functions well on many levels. Downey completed formal architectural training and much of his work follows an architectural vernacular, from his proposals for building projects to his meditations on the Yanomami shabano (the indigenous Amazonian tribe’s flexible and organic communal dwelling that Downey and his family inhabited for several months from 1976 to 1977). Beyond these more evident connections, Smith advances a broader application of the term, inviting us to consider how “invisible architecture” can be used as an encompassing point of entry into the ways in which Downey’s art interrogated pathways of inter-personal and inter-cultural communications and critiqued structures of power and identity through a highly personal and creative language.

The first two works shown upon entering the gallery space relate to a performance called Plato Now, an interactive video piece that Downey staged at the Everson Museum in Syracuse, New York in 1973. The original performance drew upon the structural and philosophical parallels between the conscious-raising myth of the cave and video and film technologies. Presented here as a drawing collage and video (which itself is a montage composed from footage of two performances, Plato Now and Three Way Communication, and of scenes from the artist’s studio), this work foregrounds Downey’s sustained task of challenging the boundaries of audience, performer, and participant, while also scrutinizing the interrelation of reality and representation. Given the performative basis to much of Downey’s work, I was curious to see how the show would resolve the difficult task of conveying the artist’s live-action, one-off, or performance-based pieces in which the element of immediacy and inter-personal connection are paramount but now perhaps irretrievable. By beginning with the allegory of the cave and its connections to theatrical or cinematic experience, I felt that this exhibition premised itself on the notion that while the primary occurrences of Downey’s performances, happenings, and travels may be in the past, it is the long shadows of these creative acts and their myriad forms that have a lasting impact.

Photo: Harry Shunk, Courtesy: Marilys Belt Downey
Juan Downey, With Energy Beyond These Walls, 1970

Photo: Harry Shunk
Courtesy: Marilys Belt Downey

The first room of the exhibition is devoted to a number of drawings from the late 1960s that diagram the artist’s bio-robotic and electronic sculptures. Premised upon an inter-dependency between electronic mechanisms and the human body, many of these works would have required the activation of a person’s touch, voice, or bodily function. While the drawings for these playful cyber-organic devices initially have the appearance of preparatory blueprints, some were in fact conceived after the sculptures’ creation, perhaps more as a record than a point of inspiration (fig. 1). This inversion of expected working methods underscores Downey’s cyclical and often non-linear working process.

The largest gallery space is centered around Downey’s arguably most significant and best known body of work, Video Trans Americas (1973-1977), an epic video travelogue based on the extended excursions made by the artist and his family and friends throughout Central and South America. In its present incarnation (based on a 1976 installation at the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston, Texas), the outline of a map of the Americas is placed along the gallery floor, parts of which extend up the wall. Double-monitors are placed at precise geographical points along the map and screen dual-channel video pieces that correspond to their geographic location. As such, the visitor can conceptually travel the Americas and experience both the micro- and macro-levels of experience and knowledge borne from the artist’s travels. The videos include immensely rich and varied scenes of local customs, vernacular architecture, and pre-Columbian ruins. Despite the abundant visual stimulation, I closed my eyes for a moment to focus on the overlapping sounds of singing and musical instruments, street life, and marketplace clatter as well as Downey’s own lyrical narrations. These noises commingled with the base hum from the monitors, composing a sound-based “invisible architecture” that merged organic and electronic frequencies.

Photo: Harry Shunk, Courtesy of Marilys Belt Downey
Juan Downey, World Map, 1979

Photo: Harry Shunk
Courtesy: Marilys Belt Downey

The large-scale maps that surround the Video Trans Americas installation are particular visual highlights (fig. 2). Some are painted or drawn over actual maps, crafting an exquisite blend of the mediums of painting, drawing and cartography. In some works Downey re-imagined parts of the American continent as converging or rotating upon themselves. Stepping in closely, one appreciates how he built up hundreds of thin, radiating lines of alternating tones of paint that must have required the upmost dexterity and patience and which have strong visual correlations to a series of meditation drawings hung nearby. The maps on walls can be easily linked to the long history (and ideological implications) of mapping the Americas. But it is Video Trans Americas—as a horizontal videographic map—that is the greater transgressor of this history in its form and content.

Courtesy of Marilys Belt Downey
Juan Downey, Mi casa en la playa 1, 1975

Courtesy: Marilys Belt Downey

The exhibition leads on to a number of posters of architectural and environmental proposals from the 1970s. Bound by the notion of a “life cycle”, these flexible living spaces were to be powered by natural elements of the sun, water, and wind (fig. 3). Within this same space is a trio of videos that Downey edited following his extended habitation among the Yanomami peoples. These videos —especially The Abanoned Shabono and The Laughing Alligator—represent the artist’s radical merging of anthropological theory, subjective narration, and video art. The juxtaposition of these videos beside the “life cycle” proposals is a bit incongruous, but it is possible to find linkages between the communal, impermanent spaces of the Yanomami featured in the videos and Downey’s own building proposals.

The presence of Downey’s home country is best represented by the video, Chiloé (1981), a nostalgic meditation on the remote southern Chilean island. What is missing, however, are some of the artist’s most explicit political pieces against General Pinochet’s government, without which it is difficult to grasp the feelings of displacement and frustration that must have occupied the artist in the years after the coup of 11 September 1973.[1] In the next room the inclusion of two small posters advertising some of Downey’s political performances do not adequately illuminate this facet of his art and life, although there are two works that do respond more critically to contemporary politics and the deeper destructive histories of colonialism in the Americas. For Corner (first exhibited in 1985), Downey attached newspaper articles to the adjoining walls of a gallery corner, each article reporting on contemporary events in Chile published in either the official newspaper in Chile, El Mercurio, or the Havana-based communist periodical, Granma Weekly Review. This piece is perhaps a statement on the artist’s ambivalence towards news reportage, given that both right and leftist perspectives are used to support the gallery walls in equal measure. In the opposing corner is Rewe (1990), a fascinating towered video-sculpture that mixes NASA footage with clips from the commercial movie Christopher Columbus and features some of Downey’s strongest and most poetic statements on the structures of power and identity fundamental to Latin America, past and present. The twisting, totem-like form of the stacked monitors alludes to a tree sacred to Mapuche culture and indigenous to southern Chile. The allusions to Rewe’s organic and sacred origins keenly resonate against the architectural principles of abutment and contemporary media construction used to build Corner.

Just as the exhibition opens with cast shadows, it concludes with related forms of reflection and projection, particularly that of mirroring. The final room of the exhibition is a separate gallery focused on Downey’s life-long fascination with European culture, particularly Baroque art in Spain. In several drawings and videos he draws out the architecture of gazes and mirrors that Velázquez created in Las Meninas and The Rokeby Venus, interpretations largely based on Michel Foucault’s and Leo Steinberg’s readings of these spatial arrangements (Steinberg himself is featured in the video The Looking Glass). A number of these videos highlight Downey’s good humor sprinkled amid the heavier topics of cultural decadence and decline. Many of these videos were intended for television, marking Downey’s continuing embrace of technologies that can potentially build fabrics of inter-communication rather than physical confines.

As of this writing, the exhibition will be traveling to the Arizona State University Art Museum, Tempe, AZ (September 24– December 31, 2011) and the Bronx Museum of the Arts in New York (February 12–May 20, 2012). A catalogue will also be published in the coming months and both exhibition and text will surely do much to increase Downey’s profile in the United States.

Sarah Montross is a doctoral candidate at the Institute of Fine Arts, New York University. She is working on a dissertation that combines a study of artists’ travelogues and experimental forms of film, video and television by Latin American artists during the 1970s to the 1990s. She has assisted art history courses at New York University and Hunter College and held positions and internships at the Museum of Modern Art, International Center of Photography and Museum of the City of New York. This summer, she will be working as a graduate intern in the Education Department of the National Gallery of Art.


      [1] The most prominent example is probably Map of Chile: Anaconda, a work that was censured at the Center of Inter-America Relations (now the Americas Society) in New York City in 1975.