Juan Downey

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borderline experience, civilisation, colonialism, ecology, identity, perception, post-colonialism, ritual, spirituality, stereotype, technology, transgression
Visual Arts (drawing, installation art, mixed media, video art)
America, South, America, North
Chile, United States of America
created on:
November 9, 2008
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Juan  Downey
Juan Downey. Courtesy of Marilys Downey


The Changer of Perspectives

The exhibition "Rational / Irrational" in the House of World Cultures is darkened to a pitch black. Those who enter the exhibition hall are drawn towards an unearthly, white, plastic UFO. Its inner circle contains drawings, its outer ring invites the observer to sit down. Visitors, if they so wish, can slide along the seating from picture to picture. Is that an egg-yolk-coloured dome being submerged in violet? Or a yellow planet with a violet ring, flying through a universe as dark as night? One drawing is reminiscent of the spiral form of a snail´s shell, another of a solar eclipse. What they all have in common is that they are arranged concentrically. They have the effect of simple mandalas.
The drawings are by Juan Downey, who became a rising star of video art in the 1970s. He drew the series during meditative sessions in the Orinoco and Amazon basins in 1976/77. Perhaps in one of the traditional houses of the Yanomani people, which Downey, an architect, admired. He had been meditating since the age of nineteen. His search for himself, for meaning and the universe is reflected in his personal records from this time, in which he tells how, while he was meditating, a light appeared above his head and in his "mind", leaving behind it spiral-shaped coloured streaks. It created a white space, an abyss, into which he wished to dive but which he also wished to grasp. "Is this", he asks the "principle of life itself?"

This entry in Downey´s diary and his drawings lend themselves to being interpreted in the spirit of the late 1960s and the 1970s. In 1976/77, mystical perceptions with a scientific approach were very much en vogue. The "Amazon mandalas" combine the Yanomanis´ cosmology with Downey´s personal spirituality in harmonious fashion. They document Downey´s efforts to spiritually approach the Yanomani and their concentric world view.

In his video works, Downey addressed the western-colonial perception of the "others" in a playful, ironic fashion. In the early 1970s, the Chilean-born pioneer of video art took one of the first portable video cameras and took off from New York "to find himself in South America". It was the beginning of his famous video series "Trans Americas", which he continued to document until his early death in 1993, producing more than thirty films and installations.

This series includes the video "The Laughing Alligator" (1979). In the exhibition, the curator, Valerie Smith, establishes a relation between this film and Downey´s meditative drawings. It shows traditional rituals and ceremonies of the indigenous people. The camera follows a dancing Yanomani, panning up and back down his body to his stamping feet. Suddenly, the recording is interrupted and we see Downey in front of a grey curtain, talking about his own experiences in the Amazon basin. Then he cuts to a forest scene, and, from a shaky camera perspective, the viewer sees a Yanomani, pointing an arrow at him. Downey says "The anthropologists warned me about the ferocity of these Indians." The Indio stands there motionless. Downey points his camera at him and commentates: "The camera also is a dangerous weapon." Shortly afterwards he places the camera in the Yanomani´s hand,

In the 1960s, numerous researchers and explorers had set out for the Amazon basin and published their view of the Yanomani under the cover of scientific objectivity. They portrayed them as sex-crazed savages or blood-thirsty cannibals. These researchers included Jacques Lizot, a student of the sociologist Claude Lévi-Strauss. The video "The Abandoned Shabono" (1978), which is also being shown as part of the exhibition "Rational / Irrational", shows the French ethnologist Lizot in conversation with Downey. Downey says here that the traditional Yanomani house does not destroy the purity of the rain forest. Lizot responds that the industrial societies are founded on the destruction of other races and that the Indians could not be spared. "You", replies Downey to the ethnologist, "are the prophet of the earth!"

Science, power and destruction: a fatal triangle. The abandoned Yanomani house is a metaphor. Downey tried to bring his own world into harmony with the world of the "others", to seek out what they both had in common. "The Abandoned Shabono" points the finger not at the others, but at ourselves.
Author: Heike Gatzmaga


A pioneer of video art, Juan Downey was born in 1940 in Santiago, Chile. In 1961, he received a B.A. in architecture at the Catholic University in Chile. In 1963, he moved to Paris for two years, where he learned engraving techniques at the S.W. Hayter Atelier 17. In 1965, he moved to New York and studied at the Pratt Institute, where he later also taught. In addition to his video works, Downey produced installations, drawings and performances. After he discovered the portable video camera, "Sony Portapack", Downey began his diverse video series. From 1973 onwards, he regularly travelled to the Amazon basin. "Trans Americas" (from 1971, or 1973, according to other sources) and the documentary film "Yanomani Healing One" (1977) reflect his examination of the culture of the Yanomani people of southern Venezuela, which adopted both ethnological and autobiographical approaches and deconstructed western attitudes. In "The Thinking Eye", he uses video technology to address the "self" within cultural, political and economic systems. In the late 1980s, Downey began experimenting with the multi-medial world. It was during this time that he made "Bachdisk" (1988) and "Hard Times and Culture: Part One, Vienna fin de siècle", his last work, in which he establishes a link between the demise of the Austro-Hungarian Kingdom and the development of psychoanalysis. Downey received numerous awards, including grants from the Guggenheim Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation. He died 1993 at the age of 53 from cancer.


Group Exhibitions (Selected)

2008 Archivo Sur , Futura, Prague, Czech Republic / Todas as historias, Museu Serralves - Museu de Arte Contemporânea, Porto, Portugal / Arte Vida: Actions By Artists Of The Americas, 1960-2000, El Museo del Barrio, New York, USA / 2007 Visiones del paraiso - Utopias, Distopias, Heterotopias, Espacio 1414, Santurce, Puerto Rico / AMERICAN VIDEO-ART, LAZNIA - Centre for Contemporary Art, Gdansk, Poland / 2006 Estrecho Dudoso , Fundación Ars Teor Etica, San José, Costa Rica / Primera generación. Arte e imagen en movimiento, 1963-1986, Museo Nacional Centro de Arte Reina Sofía MNCARS, Madrid, Spain / Colección grabado MAC - talleres matrices y nuevas orientaciones, MAC Museo de Arte Contemporáneo. Universidad de Chile, Santiago, Chile / 2005 The Art of the Print, Art Museum of the Americas, Washington D.C., USA / El Coleccionista, Galería Animal, Santiago, Chile / 2004 Ambulantes. Cultura portátil, Centro Andaluz de Arte Contemporáneo (CAAC), Sevilla, Spain / Across Borders, Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery, New York, USA / 2003 banquete_ , MediaLab Madrid, Madrid, Spain / Banquete?Metabolism and Communication, ZKM Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie, Karlsruhe, Germany / 2002 Los 60 en la colección de grabados del MAC, MAC Museo de Arte Contemporáneo. Universidad de Chile, Santiago, Chile / II Bienal Internacional de Arte de Buenos Aires, Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Buenos Aires, Argentina / 2001 49th International Art Exhibition Venice Biennale / Biennale di Venezia, Venice, Italy / Grabados Chilenos De La Colección Permanente Del MAC, MAC Museo de Arte Contemporáneo. Universidad de Chile, Santiago, Chile / 2000 The End: An Independent Vision of Contemporary Culture, 1982-2000 Exit Art, New York, USA / 1999 Selección de Grabado, Colección Permanente,MAC Museo de Arte Contemporáneo. Universidad de Chile, Santiago, Chile / 1998 New Video Acquisitions: Four Voices , MoMA - Museum of Modern Art, New York, USA / 1992 Eye for I : autoportraits vidéo = video self-portraits, Musée d´art contemporain de Montréal, Montreal, Canada / 1977 documenta 6, Kassel, Germany / 1975 IX BIENNALE DE PARIS, Paris, France

Solo Exhibitions (Selected)

2005 Juan Downey, Nohra Haime Gallery, New York, USA / 1993 Rewe: Juan Downey, Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Ithaca, USA


This artist took part in the following project(s) organized/funded by the culturebase.net partner institutions.

Rational / Irrational

(08 November 08 - 11 January 09)