Juan Downey’s first US museum retrospective offers a sampling of work he produced between 1968 and 1991. This venue is the second stop for the survey (it originated last May at the List Visual Arts Center and will travel to the Bronx Museum in February 2012), but this is the only show that features a reconstruction of the Chilean-born artist’s important and controversial Anaconda Map of Chile, 1973, in which a live anaconda slithers over hand-colored maps of the country that line the bottom of a Plexiglas-enclosed box. The snake evokes the Anaconda Copper Mining Company that was financially involved in the 1973 overthrow of President Allende’s democratic government. The original piece debuted at the Center for Inter-American Relations in New York, a space funded by the Rockefeller family, and was immediately censored for its allusion to the mining company whose shares were previously owned by the Rockefellers.
Among the seventy-five works on view are preparatory drawings of Downey’s electronic sculptures from the late 1960s and his pioneering early videos of the ’70s, in which subjects are offered immediate feedback, enabling the artist, in his own words, to multiply space and time. The centerpiece of the exhibition is the 1976 installation Video Trans Americas—a part anthropological, part autobiographical record of Downey’s trips across Central and South America.
The show succeeds in presenting the artist as a protean figure. From his bi-cultural origins to his interdisciplinary interests in architecture (he trained as an architect), anthropology, politics, and art history, Downey’s work comes across as both multifarious and synthesizing. It brings to mind the “liminal entity” described by the eminent British cultural anthropologist Victor Turner––a space that is “neither here nor there [but] betwixt and between the positions assigned and arrayed by law, custom, convention, and ceremonial.” The question that remains is whether Downey’s insistence on remaining “betwixt and between” media, styles, and cultures signaled his desire to extend the borders of the accepted, thus moving toward a culturally more centrist position, or whether he was content to remain in the liminal cultural space where he could be at once an actor, an observer, and a commentator.