Posts tagged ‘Juan Downey’

A funny thing happened on the way to Diablo…

Above: Juan Downey: The Invisible Architect at the ASU Art Museum. Photo by Craig Smith. 

I was taking a quick break, heading up to the third floor to visit the infamous Diablo, when this thought occurred to me. The first floor gallery of Downey’s work is a segue to the second floor gallery of Downey’s work.

Now, bear with me here, I’m definitely not claiming you can’t appreciate one without witnessing the other, but it’s enjoying the individual parts instead of the whole. The move from the first floor gallery to the second floor gallery is like taking a step forward in time. It’s a transition, an evolution really, from Downey’s earlier experiments in performance art to his work as a pioneer video artist.

While the gallery on the first floor contained mostly drawings, sketches, and diagrams, the second floor, containing Video Trans Americas, is a multi-media mash-up of video and drawing. TVs are arranged in pairs across the floor while Downey’s art, again only graphite and pencil on paper, is displayed on the walls. As I walk around the gallery, each set of TVs stares like a pair of tireless eyes, watching you while you watch them.  The monitors flash images, snapshots of Downey’s journey. For several minutes the landscape rolls by, shaky and unstable, sometimes seen from the window of a car, sometimes from the side view mirror. A woman sews, pulling thread and needle through a piece of fabric with painstaking effort. Children play soccer in the street while protesters march across yet another screen, vehemently waving signs and banners.

Regardless of changes in media, the themes remain the same. Far from arbitrary, every detail plays some part in Downey’s grand design. I feel like Downey wants to trick us, the viewers, into letting our existing assumptions about what must be complex (technology) mislead us. Without reflection we focus upon the TVs and miss the finer points of Downey’s saga. I mean, in the presence of several sets of TVs playing different videos, who would think to look at the floor? However, the TVs only make sense once you do. What initially appear to be squiggly, winding lines of tape between televisions proves to be, upon inspection, a map: a map of North, South and Central America, the very region Downey travelled through while filming Video Trans Americas. The movie clips too, taken singly, out of sequence, out of context, seem disjointed and confusing. However these are not individual videos, but segments of a whole. Dispersed over the map sketched on the gallery floor, they are the text and the illustrations to the tale of Downey’s travels.

Think that’s all? Just a deconstructed video exhibition? Where’s the fun, the whimsy otherwise found contrasting the depth of Downey’s work? On the wall, directly to the right of the gallery’s entrance, Downey plays his trump card, and it isn’t even his work.

While filming Video Trans America, Downey and his family spent nine months living with the Yanomami in the Amazon. This bright, vibrant, color-pencil art is theirs. One day, after they had spent a significant of time watching him meditate and draw, Downey gave the Yanomami colored pencils and paper. And they drew, without any prior coaching or instructions. Now, this might just be me, but I honestly can’t think of a greater and more profound contrast. Especially because one of these drawings depicts an airplane flying over two brightly color structures with a rainbow in the background.

Where did the inspiration for that even come from? There is, in my mind, an almost unfathomable distance between a video anthropology discussing invisible energies, political discourse and the Latin American identity on the one hand and the color-pencil drawings of an indigenous Amazonian tribe on the other. But for all its magnitude, this unfathomable distance does not invalidate that both Video Trans Americas and the Yanomami drawings are not only culturally significant, but also art.

Actually, I’m honestly so flabbergasted right now that I’ve run out of words. So, while I’m sorry if I’m disappointing anyone, that’s really all I have for now. I can promise more to come though; I owe that much to Diablo. Due to my preoccupation with the second floor gallery, I never even got around to visiting him. So look out for blog post three, where Diablo will get the spotlight!

Karen Enters, PR Intern

November 22, 2011 at 6:58 pm

Experiments with robots, machines and conditions: Juan Downey’s Invisible Architect

Last week at work, I had to find and compile images (and the necessary credit lines, of course) for an online slideshow presenting some of the works of Juan Downey. The cool part? Once I was done, I got to go look at the works in person.

In case it wasn’t already obvious, I work at the ASU Art Museum, which is currently exhibiting Juan Downey: The Invisible Architect, the first U.S. museum survey of Chilean artist Juan Downey’s work. There are three whole galleries worth of his work here, one on each floor, but unfortunately I only had time to properly appreciate two.

Now, I might not be someone exactly qualified to comment on art (I’m a marketing and economics major, very boring), but Downey’s work is awesome. The gallery on the first floor contained some of Downey’s more technical pieces, sketches and drafts of his experiments in performance art examining the interactions between man and machine. I was amazed by the depth of the contrast.  Downey documents his inquiries into invisible energies existing in human-machine communication in the crisp, precise detail of an architect’s draft, but done with such simple mediums, color pencil and graphite.

Downey’s projects are complex investigations and experiments with robots, machines, and conditions. Yet, such seemingly intricate, technical undertakings are juxtaposed against the simple, even humble, but loving detail he used to document them. His sketches, as I mentioned, are done on paper with pencil, and while devoid of much color and punctuated with Downey’s scribbles and annotations, still retain a perfect feel and respect for space and position, nothing random, everything with a purpose.

Three pieces by Juan Downey: "Inside the Robot," "Follows People and..." and "...and Breathes Stuffy Air on Them," all 1970, all colored pencil and graphite on paper, all courtesy of Marilys B. Downey.

While interactions between man and machine and invisible energies seem as though they could easily be boring, high-brow and scientific, they’re not. Downey’s innovative sense of whimsy avoids anything detached and pretentious. My personal favorite is Downey’s transcription of Pollution Robot, decomposed into three pieces: Inside the Robot, Follows People And….., And Breathes Stuffy Air On Them.

If the names of the works are amusing, then Downey’s performance of Pollution Robot must have been even more so. In Pollution Robot, Downey hid himself within a robot box, followed people, and breathed stuffy air on them. I loved it, the lack of pretention in the names and the act, that Downey himself was in the robot following people, and the fact that in the robot, Downey’s main purpose was, rather than anything else one could imagine, to follow people and breathe stuffy air on them. It makes the complexity of the themes explored in Downey’s performance accessible and entertaining.

Unfortunately, I am now out of time and space, and I didn’t even get to mention the exhibition in the second gallery featuring some of Downey’s more traditional (but still far from it) art. But hopefully, that’s another story for another day, or another blog post for another day at work.

Karen Enters, PR and Marketing Intern

October 13, 2011 at 9:00 pm

Meet Diablo

Diablo the anaconda has finally arrived.

He wasn’t thrilled about being moved, and released an indescribable smell to express his displeasure, but he is now safely installed in his enclosure on the third floor, as part of an installation by Juan Downey titled “Anaconda Map of Chile.” It’s an important piece, and it’s never been shown in the U.S. the way the artist intended; because of Downey’s point about the Anaconda Copper Mining Company’s role in the downfall of Salvador Allende and the installation of dictator Augusto Pinochet, the piece was censored more than once.

Diablo, front and center. Photo by Anne Sullivan.

Diablo is a 6-foot Eunectes notaeus (Yellow Anaconda), on loan to the Museum from the Phoenix Herpetological Society, a non-profit reptile education and conservation group. He was rescued by his current owner, Russ Johnson, who is president of the Phoenix Herpetological Society, when he was just about year old. Diablo’s enclosure is heated, and is one-and-a-half times larger than his cage at the Society, giving him more room to stretch out, although he likes to spend most of his time coiled up. During his stay at the Museum, two staff members of the PHS will come regularly to care for him.

Native to tropical South America, anacondas are members of the boa constrictor family and are the largest of the snakes of the Americas. Yellow Anacondas live about 15 to 20 years and grow to be 8 to 12 feet long. Diablo is a young snake, probably 8 or 9 years old, and his diet consists of rats. In the wild, anacondas eat fish, alligators, birds, small deer and large rodents. The anaconda can unhinge its lower jaw, allowing it to swallow animals whole after squeezing them to death with its powerful body.

At the time of his rescue, Diablo belonged to a young man who had purchased him from a local pet store but didn’t know anything about anacondas. Diablo had grown very sick, so someone contacted Russ, who nursed Diablo back to health. It took almost two years. “It was a labor of love,” Russ says.

Now Diablo’s skin is the right color and is iridescent, as it should be. Russ notes that under normal circumstances, people should not own anacondas, but because Diablo was born in captivity, it is against international regulations to release him back into the wild. So Russ will always take care of him.

The museum is grateful to Russ and to the Phoenix Herpetological Society for helping us make sure that Diablo is well cared for during his stay at the ASU Art Museum.

Tonight at 6 p.m., Marilys Belt de Downey, director of the Juan Downey Foundation, will speak with Curator Valerie Smith about her late husband’s work, including “Anaconda Map of Chile,” followed by our Season Opening Reception from 7 to 9 p.m. We hope you’ll come visit Diablo during the course of the season, to see the significant role he plays in the Juan Downey retrospective here at the Museum. If you do, we ask only that you please refrain from touching or tapping on his enclosure. He won’t enjoy that. As a preschool teacher we know tells her students, “Touch with your eyes.”

September 30, 2011 at 10:55 pm 1 comment

Defending Diablo

NOTE: This is a composite photo-illustration of an anaconda by PR Assistant Karen Enters, not an actual representation of Diablo…

Last month, I defended Diablo in front of Arizona State University’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee.

Diablo is the 6-foot Anaconda snake that will inhabit one of Juan Downey’s sculptures for the fall exhibition The Invisible Architect.

I have done a lot of things as a contemporary art curator, especially as the role has become more collaborative in the creative process and with the community. I have worked with artists on site-specific installations inside and outside of the Museum, commissions, residencies and socially-engaged work. (John Spiak’s blogs on this site about Gregory Sale’s Social Studies project are a great example.) But this is the first time that I’ve had to defend a live animal “protocol” or investigate the eating (and defecating) habits of large snakes.

We will be borrowing Diablo from the Phoenix Herpetological Society, and they will be caring for him throughout the exhibition and have fully vetted his three-month habitat.

Curiosity and spectacle aside, the reason that I’m doing this is because it is a very powerful piece. Downey first installed the work in 1973, and it was originally produced for a show at The Americas Society in New York. The snake lives during the exhibition on a spectacular hand-drawn map of Chile and is a reference to the North American multinational copper company the Anaconda Mining Company. Anaconda was active in Chile before the nationalization of mining in Chile, which is one of the factors that led international business and its governmental surrogates to eliminate elected democratic president Salvador Allende and replace his government with the Pinochet military regime.

Over the next few months, we’ll be building the platform for the piece and finalizing the exhibition design towards its opening in late September. Many thanks to Lekha Hileman Waitoller, curatorial assistant, who has been managing this effort. She has an interesting new line on her resume.

–Heather Sealy Lineberry
Senior Curator and Associate Director

August 5, 2011 at 6:31 pm

Adventures in curating, or “The Invisible Architect”

 

Juan Downey, “Anaconda Map of Chile,” 1973. Photo by Harry Shunk, courtesy of the Juan Downey Foundation.

Just back from a trip to the East Coast to research several upcoming exhibitions and projects. My first stop was the MIT List Visual Art Center to visit the Juan Downey exhibition, The Invisible Architect, which the ASU Art Museum will be presenting this fall. It is a fascinating and complex body of work by a Chilean-born artist who experimented with new technology and its role in our society beginning in the late 1960s. Downey (1940-1993) worked with a number of artists from that period, including Gordon Matta-Clark and Bill Viola, on interactive performances and videos. Much of his early work explored the invisible connections between and among humans, the body and the built environment .

Later he started to explore issues central to his personal history and experiences. In the mid 1970s, he and his family lived for several months with the Yanomami Indians in the Amazon, arriving by canoe with their art materials and video camera. Downey made ironic, pseudo-documentary videos that critiqued Western anthropological approaches.

The sleepers in the exhibition are the beautiful paintings and drawings, many of them maps of the Americas or fantastic architectural structures. The show was featured in Artforum’s summer preview issue; after showing here in Tempe, it will travel to the Bronx Museum.

Ever since my return, I have been working with the rest of the curatorial team to plan for the installation of The Invisible Architect in three of our galleries. We are juggling multiple videos, installations — and an Anaconda.

You never know where curatorial work will take you…more soon.

Heather Sealy Lineberry
Senior Curator and Associate Director,  ASU Art Museum

July 20, 2011 at 11:34 pm


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