Inquiries of the gaze: care and delight
go to "Inquisiciones de la mirada: esmero y deleite" in Letras en Linea
Inquiries of the gaze: care and delight. María José Delpiano, published in Letras en linea web magazine. 2012
A recurring issue I have experienced for some years when I go to a Mónica Bengoa exhibition and see her works, is that the images I expose myself to persist in my retina for the rest of the day, they assault me like unexpected sparkles as I carelessly walk the streets, have lunch with a friend, read a book, take the bus home. Independently of the factors that have intervened my personal history in the construction of my gaze (we only see what we have learned to see), due to which I am –perhaps– so “permeable” to the images Mónica Bengoa produces, it seems irrefutable to me that her works have an enormous visual solidness. I ask myself then what makes those images so strong, so provocative to the gaze, so far removed from indifference. The issue of scale evidently plays a central role in several of her projects, the dimensions of her different murals overflow the human scale, due to which the presence of the object is not only evidenced through eyesight but by the relation every body establishes with that perceptual experience.
But the issue of scale is but one more of the resources Mónica Bengoa disposes of in order to achieve this kind of persistence of the image. There is, I believe, a more consistent issue providing the solvency for the correct inner working of the numerous elements –technical and conceptual materials– which converge in her productive output: it is her particular work methodology, which, it could be said, is an open and organic system, under continuous construction. On one hand, and because of the magnitude that a good deal of her projects reach, it implies a large quota of discipline and rigor, but on the other, it gives way to a more playful and intuitive dimension. Even if Bengoa relies on a methodological base on which she outlines an artistic issue and a preliminary plan of action is generated, said base is destabilized when the artist, in this playful side of hers, decides to undertake a colossal task without knowing the trade. Thus, her method stands up as in intense process of production-learning, in which technique is slowly corrected and systemized by who is executing it, reaching a superior degree of skill and prolixity, but on the other hand, all of this effort and rigor are progressively compensated, step by step, with the delights of play and sensibility.
This work system has brought a great coherence to her body of work, and this is mostly revealed in her works which have required monumental efforts, but nonetheless, I think she has reached a kind of vortex in her most recent work: the four felt murals that compose the Einige Beobachtungen über Insekten und Wildblumen (some observations on insects and wildflowers) exhibition at the Museo de Artes Visuales de Santiago (Santiago visual arts museum) (from March 15 to May 6 2012).
On how to engrave with a felt cloth
The exhibition is composed of four large hand cut out felt panels, the first, following the logic of the tour tracing the exhibition space Algunas observaciones de medio día (some observations at noon) (1.84 x 14.65 m.), is an extensive black cloth representing the front view of a garden of exuberant vegetation whose image is progressively constructed due to the emptying of certain regions of the piece, in this case the ones corresponding to the lit areas. The intense lighting of the sunrays falling vertically on the surface of the soil seems to eliminate all possibility of half tones, due to which the image thus refined presents a high contrast: the shadow (felt color) and the light (the slightly curved white wall supporting the felt) parts are clearly outlined and the weight of both on the plane, subtly balanced. And even if the clean outline of the lights allows to distinguish the outlines of plants, leaves and other objects in the representation, a kind of “dazzling” prevents precisely distinguishing what it is one is looking at.
In this way Algunas observaciones… turns out to be a work very much related to graphics, its appearance almost inevitably refers to engraving, as well as its technique, characterized by the cleanliness of the trace and the composition-like interplay between planes of a greater presence and finer and more delicate lines. In this sense, we cannot forget that Mónica Bengoa comes from engraving –specifically from Eduardo Vilches’ (certainly a great botany enthusiast) workshop– and even if she never thought about dedicating to the discipline in traditional terms, several of her methodological operations, visual proposals and technical solutions derive from there.
But when approaching the mural, the physical nature of the work is exposed and we see how certain angles or shapes of the cut out felt del? –affixed to the wall only on strategic points– project faint shadows on the white wall (on the light), thus the graphic element gives way to the more objectual dimension of the image.
This work turns into an excellent prelude for the rest of the exhibition: from the panoramic view, one transits towards the amplified view of the detail, from the cleanliness of the pure contrast to the superposition of different planes or layers of color, from more graphic issues to other decidedly more objectual ones.
To cut out photographs from books on insects and wildflowers
The following three murals are felt reproductions of photographs of open books on botany and insects. Felt is the new support on which Mónica Bengoa exercises that which since 2001, with Sobrevigilancia (over-vigilance), has set the standard in her artistic practice: the transference or translation of photographs to materialities which generally turn out to be familiar and close to the spectator (at least in this context); it is about thistles, napkins and embroidery thread. With help of a computer program, the original image is decomposed in color regions and then recomposed by hand –generally in large formats– with thread stitches, pencil coloring or dyed thistles, she goes on to filling the different template sections. Photography is then assumed as a platform for visual research, which will include a horizon of issues related with media such as painting, drawing, engraving and the objectual nature.
If –as art theorist Victor Stoichita has stated– the glance behind impressionist painting was a “constructed” one, this is, it let itself be influenced by photography and a whole sensibility for the modern times (Ver y no ver -seeing and not seeing. Turning the gaze into the main focus in impressionist painting– Madrid, Ciruela publishers, 2005, pg. 12), in this particular contemporary gaze, on the contrary, it would seem that it is photography which lets itself be influenced or scrutinized by traditional art techniques: painting and the graphic system, among others. German artist Gerhard Richter –whose work Bengoa knows very well– has consistently studied these issues in depth; now, the commitment of the Chilean artist introduces another interesting variable in this kind of research: the way something is handcrafted.
Thus, the recent felt mural project picks up the complexity of the previous operations of photographic transference and, from the options the new material reveals, she proposes the continuation of her inquiries on a technical and formal level. These murals are, in terms of visual resources, something like advanced studies on color, form and materiality. All three share being composed by modular structures on which pieces of felt in different tones are superimposed. Here, the photographic image is no longer deconstructed by regions, but by color surfaces. The outline of the layer is transferred to the felt cloth, which is then cut out by hand. The pieces, which can cover several square centimeters of surface or only some millimeters, are mounted one after the other until the image is completely rearticulated. In the case of working with layers, the templates do not mark delimited perimeters for the “application of color”, but the artist, according to the construction system she has chosen, progressively removes or adds cloth guided only by what she sees.
a) Inquiries on color: what is austere and what is warm
On this recent project, in a way similar to what she has undertaken with the thistle murals, Bengoa imposes on herself working with a specific color spectrum (grey or red), and with a limited number of tones, which are also the ones provided by the market offer (same as the thistles, some felt cloths were dyed by the artist herself). Thus, as the enormous mural, Algunas consideraciones sobre los insectos: Abeja de antenas largas (some considerations on insects: long horned bee) (340 x 545 cm.) is a study on grey scales, the diptych Algunas consideraciones sobre las flores silvestres: Orquídea abeja y Tablero de damas (some considerations on wild flowers: bee orchid and chess flower) (258 x 320 cm. each) is a study on red.
The former is constituted by ten felt layers displayed from the darkest to the lightest tome. Seen from afar, the image reminds one of that children’s game –which some of us got to enjoy– in which, when facing the grey screen of some archaic TV set, we tried to guess the original color of the figure we saw appearing. But at a distance from the screen, the tone spectrum on the mural is quite austere, gathering only the essential elements in the task of transmitting the complexity of referential photography. Te variety of colors is not opaque either, or rather dry: this is generated by the particular way in which the texture of the felt absorbs the dyes. In this operation, Bengoa demonstrates that despite the asceticism of the varieties of color –and thanks to the interactions generated among the different tones and the delicate manufacture to which the material is submitted to– the image can equally acquire an amazing sensuality, irresistible to the glance. And if when we were children we were fascinated by what grey was not, here it fascinates us precisely for what it is.
On their part, the murals in red –which dialogue on continuous walls in the next hall– completely modify the temperature in the space. The powerful presence of color fills the place with a certain warmth, involving the spectator in an intimate and welcoming climate (the carefully chosen lighting and the color of the walls also collaborate in that sense). Then that Joseph Beuys story comes to mind, narrating the serious plane accident the artist suffered in northern Europe in the midst of the Great War (1943). After almost dying and devastated by the intense cold of winter, Beuys is rescued by a group of tartan nomads who wrap him up in a felt blanket for several days, bringing him back to life. In the work of Beuys (another great botany enthusiast) felt will be a recurring material, chosen among other things because of its ability to protect, keep warm and shelter. I like to think that the felt in the work of Bengoa also displays its ability to serve as refuge, as a way of protecting these images of childhood in which the artist recognizes himself studying the lessons of the “mother” tongue (German) submerged in her collection of books classifying native insects and plants.
Now, if in the lesson on insects the layer adding structure it is easy to detect (from what is dark to what is light), with the lessons on botany something different happens. In these murals the different layers of color are interspersed under the logic of a glance of the artist who, at a guess, tries to rebuild what she sees in a referential photography in felt. The structure of adding color is complex and therefore diffuse for the untrained eye. This becomes evident in Tablero de damas (draughtboard) (right panel), where certain regions of the surface will reach an enormous density, both of material as well as of color. As for us to be able to come closer to see –seduced perhaps by that which we do not understand– the shapes of the objects we recognized from afar blur, and suddenly we find ourselves in the presence of pure color. Or of shape and color, they are sinuous particles of dyed felt, arabesques of different tones of red, which even if they are fragments of a greater image, acquire visual distinction on their own.
b) Studies on shape: focus and out of focus
The photographs acting as referential images in Mónica Bengoa will commonly underline certain points of view, the stance assumed by the gaze. In the felt murals the first close-up vision of two pages from an open book can be distinguished. The views of the two pages are always partial, and this is because the book rears itself very near to the spectator, from a foreshortened view. Bengoa studies how to shift the shapes converging on a photograph onto the felt with a minimum depth of field. One can then observe how some areas remain clearly in focus and others are not. In the latter ones, the contours of the figures become indeterminate and their shapes are distorted.
At least in the diptych, one of the areas with the least clarity is the upper part of the murals, there it becomes quite difficult to certainly detect where the book ends, and the background begins. In painting, that out of focus effect on the plane of the image (in contrast with another one in focus), is obtained by applying stains of color and diffusing the contours of the objects, the complex thing here is to create the same pictorial effect with pieces of a material that does not allow mixing colors on the surface, and which, when being cut out neatly delimitates the perimeter of the shapes.
On their part, the words we observe do not necessarily seek to remit us to their meaning (the foreign language collaborates rather well in that sense), we see them cut out and diffuse. Our attention concentrates then on the unheard of aspect that they go on to acquire due to the anamorphic and “nebulous” effect. Something similar happens with the alphabet letters: to a good measure, their value lies in their shape, in their appearance as stains, its linguistic functionality remaining silent for an instant.
c) Inquiries on materials: topographies of the surface
Felt is originally an organic material: it is made pressing sheep or other animal wool. Today it is used to make key rings and to insulate Mongolian tribal homes. It can be of considerable thickness and still be light and transportable. But perhaps the most interesting thing is that felt has several and contradictory features: it at once absorbs, insulates, shelters, isolates; it is skin-like, even if it can acquire volume and depth.
On the murals, the felt sediments will carry the two dimensionality of the referential image to an objectual plane. We see how the figures acquire a corporal presence through adding material, projecting shadows on all of the surface and beyond it, on the walls. In this way the layers of material, thanks to their sinuous cut outs, turn the flat and even surface of a photograph (or of the page of a book), into a real tacheometry. From up close, we can overview the mural attending to the differences in height between one region and the other, as if we were climbing strange hills or walking on the wide shore of a lake.
Of glances and methods: brief notes
We have recognized a production method sustained on two ways of examining the surroundings in Mónica Bengoa; one has to do that fresh and intuitive gaze of children, who go round the exhibition space guided by the energy of impulse, discovering what is at hand, fascinated by finding the most simple and common objects. It is the way in which the artist explores her own place, finding the things that have (for ever) accompanied her but still manage to provoke in her the astonishment of the first time. On the other hand, this inquisitive glance of the scientist who, thanks to what John Berger calls his “technical clairvoyance” (Mirar (ways of seeing), Buenos Aires, Ediciones de la Flor publishers, 2008, pg. 27) and a rigorous methodology, allows her to access the minimal structures of what she examines. It is the search of botany and entomology, accessing the details of plants and animals, to that which our human eye cannot detect. It is the glance that allows us to see the “invisible”.
But as one can see, visual issues are methodological issues (and vice versa) in Mónica Bengoa. Her work method is complex and strengthens itself over time and with each project, and it has done so all along her artistic career. It is composed by something like sediments of knowledge and experience, which are accumulated and classified so they are always available.
But closer to “this side” of the mechanisms of the glance and the production systems, perhaps the great lesson of Mónica Bengoa is that in the end everything is about the joy of learning.
By María José Delpiano
 As she admits in a text in homage to Vilches in September 2006. Published in Eduardo Vilches, Carlos Bravo (production). Santiago 2007.
 Refer to the interview with Alejandra Villasmil, at: http://www.artishock.cl/2012/03/monica-bengoa/
This is an exercise of a great demand to the artist, it requires a rigorous and systematic training which undoubtedly began in Vilches’ color workshop. There the students, through studies on color, develop the visual perception, progressively letting go of preconceptions and basing their decisions only from experience. In this intense process they go on to understand which factors of perception affect vision and how, and they learn to use those “tricks” in order to produce visual and sensory effects.
 In this sense there is a continuity with Algunos aspectos del color en general y del rojo y negro en particular (some aspects of color in general and red and black in particular) from 2007 (her participation at the 52nd Venice Biennial), since, as one can see, Bengoa works around the same colors. But it is precisely the perseverance of color what is here put to the test, because even if the pigments used in both projects were exactly the same, when varying the material support, a variation of color will inevitably be produced. In other words, it is about observing the effects that external elements cause on color. On subtleness and formal complexities like these, the visual poetry of Mónica Bengoa is built on.