The Thinking Eye (1st Program)



Planned for television, the Juan Downey videos that make up the series The Thinking Eye. Culture as the Instrument of Active Thought (1981-1989) revolve around some landmarks of western culture and its systems of representation throughout history, taking in architecture, design, music and popular culture. Presented as essays, the videos present a critical and parodic view of the issues covered and the ideologies and power forms connected to them. This criticism is presented through a mix of personal narratives, conventions of documentary language and post-production effects, manifesting a consciousness of the mediated nature of our knowledge. These elements, both personal and technical, break with any expectation of linearity and veracity, rendering problematic the notion of transparency and objectivity that would connect video with a mirror, one of the central motifs of the series.
After returning to New York in 1974 from the journeys that make up the Video Trans Américas project, Downey did a performance based on Las meninas which started off a series of installations, dance and video actions based around mirrors, the baroque, corporality and the work of Velázquez.
This set of works became the basis for a new series centred on western culture, which originally included thirteen videos. Echoing linguistics and semiotics studies, psychoanalysis and the deconstruction of representation, the four videos that were completed oscillate between issues related to art (the signs, the action of the metaphor, the mirrors, the counterpoint), different power systems and reflections on the eye that looks and thinks. As the title The Thinking Eye suggests phonetically, the eye is part of an “I”, of a subject that is also a body that produces knowledge. One characteristic of the series is Downey’s recurring appearance as narrator, actor, artist, image, person and director, while his voice and his memories interrupt and create narratives, making the spectator’s relationship with the recorded images more complex. While The Looking Glass (1981) focuses on mirrors, reflexes and self-reflection in western culture, Information Withheld (1983) revolves around the ambiguity of the signs and their transformations in moving between cultures. Shifters (1984) takes the linguistic concept of “shifter” as a symbol of mobility and translation to reflect on the relations between architecture, power and coloniality. Although J.S. Bach (1986) focuses on the life of the German composer, the subject is shown in counterpoint, in more than one line, its complexity translated into parallel images. Hard Times and Culture: Part One: Vienna “fin-de-siècle” (1990) is part of the last series that Downey managed to plan before his death. Based on a George Kubler quotation: “an epoch of staggering difficulties above which painting, poetry and theatre flowered imperishably…”, the video explores the crisis of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the changes brought about by psychoanalysis, linguistics and the arts at the change of the century, and establishes links with the Gulf War at the time of the recording and other forms of imperialism, crisis and cultural creativity that continue to exist in the present.

20’ 34’’ | Umatic ¾ | Color | Stereo

1975

Screening format: Standard-definition digital video

United States

Maidens of Honor

Maids of Honor is a brilliant essay on illusionism, mirrors and perception in art, life and video articulated by Downey as a subjective interpretation of Velazquez’s eponymous Baroque masterpiece. Through a theatrical reenactment of the painting’s pictorial tableau and a re-articulation of its complex perspectival structure, Downey brings to life the spatial dynamics, illustrating the psychological tension of the relationship between viewer subject. Placing Las Meninas in an historical context, Downey relates the painting’s thematics to Spain’s economic and political systems of the late 17th century.

28’ 49’’ | Portapack | Color | Stereo

1981

Screening format: High-definition digital video

France - Spain - United Kingdom - United States

The Looking Glass

The Looking Glass is a multilayered essay whose visual complexity parallels its subject: the meaning of reflections, illusions and mirrors in Western art, culture and life. In his analysis of the rich iconography of the mirror in painting, including Van Eyck’s Arnolfini wedding portrait, Holbein’s Ambassadors, and Velázquez’s Las Meninas, he reflects on the psychological tension in the relation of the artist, the subjects of the paintings and the viewer beyond. Exploring perceptions of pictorial space, he uses computer graphics to diagram art historian Leo Steinberg’s analysis of perspective systems in Las Meninas. In a subjective illustration of the mirror as a reflection of the subconscious, Downey recalls his own experience of viewing Las Meninas as a young man in Madrid when he immersed himself in the “baroque space of the picture, in a total art experience... similar to orgasm.”

28’ 27’’ | Betacam | Color | Stereo

1983

Screening format: Standard-definition digital video

United States

Information Withheld

Information Withheld, part of The Thinking Eye series, deconstructs the information contained within the image in a spectacular decoding of the discourses of television and fashion. Foretelling the Baudrillardian prognosis of a supremely ironic culture in which use value and exchange value annul each other within a vertiginous spiral of commodities, Downey exposes the intercultural, global appropriation of the economy of images through the spectacle/metaphor of the fashion show which is seen at the conclusion of Information Withheld. <br />(The Eruption of Dream Into Study: Notes On the Art of Juan Downey, 1989, John G. Hanhardt).

28’ 13’’ | Betacam | Color | Stereo

1984

Screening format: Standard-definition digital video

Egypt - France - United States

Shifters

The third in Downey’s innovative series The Thinking Eye; exploring the nature of perception and the idea of reflectivity, Shifters completes the trilogy begun with The Looking Glass (1980) and Information Withheld (1983). Broadly based in the linguistic principles of shifters, the tape weaves together seven different narrative threads: Napoleon, a cat torturer, Egypt, a silent melodrama, a Leo Steinberg essay on art history, imperialist architecture, and “la working class”; each section commenting on power and the abuse of power. The work represents a bold example of the new narrative trend and, like the two previous tapes in the series, stretches the objective documentary format. The obvious contradictions of the tape, particularly in its political views, make this a thought provoking work; the visual flair of the artist renders it lush to the eye. <br /> (Juan Downey: 20 Years, 1989, Anne H. Hoy)

28’ 25’’ | Umatic ¾ | Color | Stereo

1986

Screening format: Standard-definition digital video

Germany - United States

J.S. Bach

J.S. Bach is a resonant, personal documentary on the composer that begins with Bach’s last years and ends with Downey’s note of the death of his mother. In continuous counterpoint are the transfiguring power of Bach’s music and the gritty reality of his life; the nature and biography of this man and of the video maker who identifies with him and has played his music since childhood; and the shifting, symbolic relations of art and life for both creators.

34’ 30’’ | Umatic ¾ | Color | Stereo

1990

Screening format: Standard-definition digital video

Austria - United States

Hard Times and Culture: Vienna, ‘fin-de-siècle’

Hard Times and Culture is Downey’s last single channel piece, is a series of tapes on the nexus of cultural creativity and economic, political and social forces. Downey subjectively documents periods in which economic hardships coincided with intensified creative output in the fine-arts, literature and culture at large. Part One: ‘Vienna Fin-de-Siecle’ focuses on the Austrian-Hungarian Empire one hundred years ago, when its decline inter-locked closely with the emergence of modernism in the arts and psychoanalysis.”<br /> (From the catalogue Frames of References, The Rockefeller Foundation, Film/Video/Multimedia Fellowship Award 1988-1999).

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