Juan Downey: pionero, innovador y maestro

His importance is not only owed to the influence Chilean groups and artists had early 70’s, but also because it is a renowned artist worldwide. He has been considered – along with Wolf Vostell and Nam June Paik – as one of the exponents of international video art history.

To understand in a better way the meaning of Juan Downey, we have to consider his position within national and international artistic field. He was born in 1940 in Santiago; he received his degree in architecture at Pontifical Catholic University of Chile. However, his anxiety about arts made him move to Paris and New York later. Here is where he starts to grow as an engraver artist and to experiment with new available technologies.

In the twentieth century, he becomes familiar with moving images of cinema and television. In the 60’s was when he started to experiment with video technology. Hand video cameras provide mobility and accessibility to moving images art. “Precarious Portback devices were going to be the first basic tools used by numerous artists and autonomous producers to create small-size formats, images that resemble television [1].” With this new technology, portable cameras turn into means for artists, documentary makers, and choreographers. They saw this device as a tool that makes them enter spaces reserved specially for important television producers and as a means by which they could interact with different disciplines, creating dialogues and new artistic experiences never seen before. For Paik, for instance, one of his goals was changing the image as a representation of reality by turning it into abstract symbols. This purpose fits perfectly aesthetic thoughts of those years, which sought to go beyond the materiality of works and focus on materialize contents.

Juan Downey was amid cultural revolution, exploration and contemporary art new meaning. He was not just a single observer, his art was considered theme of investigations as it criticize audiovisual meanings, it seeks to report hypocrisy and injustices; and to express and produce images until these change into a language. He did so because he considered that art is synonym of thinking and, therefore, personal identity.

“That his art was done by using videos means that Downey consider the possibility of using television. By using telecast as a means of transmission and a way that allows artist to participate in the global circulation of ideas, and to compromise in meaningful dialogues through creative projects [2].”

Despite living in New York, Juan Downey never lost contact with Chile, especially in those delicate years when the coup of 1973 was on its peak. His work did not only focus on possible topics and denunciations, but it also helped and improve creative works from different national artists [3]. Themes dealt with in this period were between his political posture concerning the dictatorship and the alienation he felt due to his distance from Chile. Once he was out of the country, the importance of his work consists on he could do a denunciation directly without being afraid of censorship or encoding his artworks.

About Cages, 1986, consists on an installation with a mono-channel video with one monitor, which is located within a bird cage and two external speakers. The work has extracts of The Diary of a Young Girl and confessions of a torturer from DINA (National Intelligence Directorate). Both recordings can be heard through the speakers, which create a speech that has subjugation and domination at the same time. Close to it, a monitor showing images of a large cage with four living canaries. Downey seeks to cause unease on the spectator, who despite moving freely, he or she could feel imprisonment that is caused by a tyrannical intolerant regime seen on a coup. By means of an audiovisual installation that adds living animals – a metaphorical place is made – conveying oppression. Artist’s subtlety is clearly shown when he uses imprisoned birds and the audio that relates totally different stories.

“Video Trans Américas” (1973-1976) is one of his most well-known works, it was filmed like if it was a travel story, it filmed different America’s places – Chile, Peru, Guatemala, Mexico, and the USA. It documentary style is focused on towns, culture and landscapes. Many give emphasis on the ethnographic quality of the content. However, for Downey, it goes further: it is about cultural interaction. It was an innovative work that contained the complexity of indigenous context and contained the communication with modernity to the highest extent by using snapshots.

“This work reproduces one culture to a different culture eye, recreates culture in its same context and, finally, unifies interactions, time and space in the same piece of art. Cultural information will be exchange mainly through the video. It was filmed on the way and played in different places so that people could see others and themselves. The job of the artist is to be a cultural communicator, an aesthetic anthropologist that has a visual expression means: video [4].”

Juan Downey is interested on communication systems, creations of reflection spaces that gather spectators so that they can experiment with his audiovisual works. It threatens television role and mass culture; it uses all available resources to express his point of view. We can consider him an anthropologist and an artist that shows diverse interest regarding his themes. He presented different problems and, without doubt, he was positioned as an artist that wishes to add on his work his own complex vision about the world that surrounds him, reinterpreting signs and building new ways of communications.

[1] La Ferla, Jorge. Medios audiovisuales. Ontología, historia y praxis. 1999. Universitaria de Buenos Aires Publisher, Society of Mixed Economy. Buenos Aires, Argentina. Pp. 18

[2] John Hanhardt. Reelaborando la modernidad: el arte de Juan Downey en “The thinking eye”. Pp.11

[3] Well-known are the cases of his collaborations with C.A.D.A. group and video letters of Eugenio Dittborn and Carlos Flores.

[4] Juan Downey El Ojo Pensante. Exhibition catalog. Telephonic Foundation of Chile. 2010. Pag. 65



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