In the 1930s, Raymond Queneau (France, 1903-1976), who in 1960 was a co-founder of the Ouvroir de literature potentielle (Oulipo) group, attended a concert featuring Bach’s Art of the Fugue in the company of the surrealist Michel Leris. This composition, created two centuries before as a set of examples of the technique of counterpoint, is comprised of 14 fugues (the last of which remained unfinished) and four songs all starting from the same theme in D-minor. Published after Bach’s death without any indication of their sequence or instrumentation, its interpretation gave origin to many different versions. Queneau evoked this experience as a source of inspiration for the idea of a literary composition that, starting from a very simple theme, posited the possibility of variations on a trivial matter; this would later become his iconic book Exercises in Style. Over the course of four years, with diverse techniques and from diverse perspectives, Queneau wrote 99 versions of the same trivial incident: a passenger experiences a certain discomfort while in route, and later meets a friend in the street who suggests changing the placement of his coat button. The transcendence of Queneau’s exercises did not rest on the insignificant plot, but in the potential of using any event as the trigger for an experimental search for new forms and structures. This transference into literature of the inspiration found in Bach’s musical variations also applies to the recent exhibition of works by Chilean artist Mónica Bengoa (1969) at the Frost Art Museum, Exercices de Style / Exercises in Style, curated by Julia Herzberg, which achieves an impeccable demonstration of the potential of the visual.
Bengoa transfers to artistic practice a stylistic exercise that was given continuity by authors such as Guillermo Cabrera Infante in his Tres Tristes Tigres. If Cabrera Infante was able to erode the borders that supposedly separate high and low culture, Bengoa extends hypertextu- ality by fusing references from creative fields such as music, literature, and the visual arts, and also brings conceptualism to a painstaking
manual labor. As Herzberg notes, “The post-minimalist strategies that the artist takes as her starting point, including repetition, an intensive manual effort, and subjective content, reflect her passionate interest in the ordinary details of what seem to be unimportant activities, events, places, things, and routines as her basic material.”
The process at the base of these exercises consist of tearing, one by one, the pages of Queneau’s 19 tales, and transferring them to other media, such as natural-wool black felt or simply paper. Each of these supports becomes a new starting point for the letter-by-letter repetition of the book’s textual variations, reproduced by Bengoa without modify- ing the words, the title, or the pagination, but which, subjected to new manual techniques and supports, originate new visual installations.
In a certain way, in this work intended to “deal with the text as a central problem for the image,” Bengoa evokes the playful figure of Borges’ Pierre Menard, who rewrites Don Quixote word by word and becomes its author. In Bengoa’s case, she transfers Queneau’s literary work to contemporary art, literally rewriting it word by word. It is interesting to note that the word style comes from the Latin Stylus, also a burin used as a writing instrument, from which the French word stylo, pen, also derives, as does the metonymic use of the term to designate different ways of writing.
On one of the Frost Art Museum’s walls, the transference of a photo- graphed image of the first five printed versions of the story was made on large “pages” in black woolen felt. This work includes six panels with the first page of the exercises, titled Notations, and a two-page version of the story: “Partie double / Double Entry.” Bengoa carved the letters by hand, so that the original image, black ink on white paper, is transformed into a kind of negative. The text is now formed by the empty space left by the cutout letters and the altered lines against the wall. Also, the bodies of the felt letters pile up on the floor, in a three- dimensional formation that is the result of chance, and unreadable.
Another eight versions of the story are transferred to white paper and cut out so that, while the letters become outlines, at the foot of each version emerges a chaotic pile by their confused bodies. In another work, Bengoa also transferred Queneau’s literary experimentalism to six embroidery tambours, white in color, sewing the letters so as to not alter their visual quality or diminishing their legibility, and adding a tactile dimension. Chance is in every case inseparable of the final effect, since each photograph is preceded by an unrepeatable or distinct operation of crumpling the page where the work originates, which generates new variation both in the distortion of the letters and the new curvatures imposed on the straight lines of Queneau’s exercises in style. As Herzberg writes, the resulting imagery evokes a sense of the unexpected. And more: it not only carries forward an exploration of the potential of form, but invites us to a mode of playful experimentation that feeds on the play between different arts.
 “The artist’s grounding in Post-Minimalist strategies including repetition, labor- intensive hand work, and subjective content reflect her passionate interest in the ordinary details of seemingly unimportant activities, events, places, things, and routines as subject matter.”