Photographic reality show
Mónica Bengoa is tired of being identified with her autobiographical subject. The artist, knowing for turning domestic shots into large photographic series and murals, says she is long past focusing on the depiction of her body and the domestic world to focus in technical transfer process of private images that support colossal staging. Instead of compiling a sort of personal photo album with shots of herself while she is asleep, her kids washing their teeth or the pots in the kitchen –which she continues to do today– what she is presenting is the result of a process, in which the snapshots has been enlarged in he computer, transfigured in chromatic codes, embroidered or painted on hundreds of thistles or paper napkins attached to the wall.
“I’m interested in mixtures, a work that can be an object and a drawing at the same time, both a pictorial and a photographic work, and which can be installed with poise in the wall. I think it’s kind of obsolete trying to classify things into disciplines and justify everything from that point. This is photography. This is painting. The more of a hybrid, the more interested I am” she adds.
What this artist does is called “post photography”. An international trend that landed in Chile in the 90s, and that is found locally in the work of Eugenio Dittborn, in the texts of Ronald Kay, and in the transfer operations from engraving, in which photography becomes both plastic material and thought material.
Bengoa modifies the pictures until she turns “everyday life” into a powerful and paradoxical scene, having as targets the crafts and the technology, the public and the private: or “the real”, displayed on large “screens”. In “Tríptico en Santiago” (Triptych in Santiago), the concept was taken to one extreme: three shots of her children eating in the kitchen appeared in a huge advertising billboard –one of those rotating billboards– located at Bellavista and Loreto streets. “The contrast between that ultimate disclosure of intimacy provided by that low-profile picture and the structure that was designed to frame generally high-quality and spectacular photographs, gives me the chance to speak of those everyday actions that make up a safe environment but often go unnoticed”.
It is a look at intimacy from a distance. A peculiar reality show based on –she says– Agota Kristof’s life in “The Notebook”, adapted for the stage by the troupe “La troppa” (Gemelos [Twins]). “I’m really interested in that ultimate nonchalance in discussing the most terrible things and also in that austerity in dealing with domestic issues. It has to do with taking an intermediate stance so that I can be personally involved an, at the same time, be open for the audience to participate”.
Body of battle
The artist makes it quite clear that she prefers to read fiction rather than philosophy, aesthetics or art theory. So much so that Diamela Eltit’s Lumpérica “was my first approach to the topic of the body as a battle territory”. Back then Mónica Bengoa was a “fan” of Cindy Sherman (New Yorker artist known for her portraits that link the social status of women to horror). Then came along the self-portraits; next, the approaches to the skin, creases, moles, scars, the backs of relatives and friends; later, the works with murals painted with crayons –using only colors corresponding to the ones used in a climate chart. Those were parallel works that represented –to different extents– a territory thing she would cross later in “Sobrevigilancia” (Overvigilance): the washbasin scene that was recreated using pigmented thistles.
Why did you stay with engraving in college?
“It was an excuse that represented an interest by a group. mario Navarro, Crisián Silva and others took it together. So did Francisca García and Carlos Navarrete. Basically, I did it because of Vilches. He was one of the precursors in the field, a teacher who gave us the chance to both work with an impressive mixture of media and get to know a much wider conceptual development. So, engraving was never about just engraving and it was always mixed with photography.”
What similarities did you have as a group? Common subjects?
“We has a certain political stance on everyday developments rather than a clear-cut subject matter. Well, we were classmates from freshman year, we majored in the same area and had the same training. We also shared common interests in literature, cinematography… we understood art as an exercise rather than a finished masterpiece; we saw art as a work in time, an investigation in constant growth and revision that gives rise to new mistakes to improve ‘the hard way’.”
What do you mean by “the hard way”?
“I mean that every new work should pose challenges, there should be things that are out of our reach, that are new to us, that we do for the first time. By doing this we establish a protocol, an operation system in which we have to be totally aware of the work’s spacial and cultural context.”
Minding the context: Eugenio Dittborn’s influence.
“He formed a very important workshop. It’s not a coincidence that de did that for the first time when I was a student in 1992. After Eugenio made the groups I began working with Mono (Cristián Silva) and Mario. I think he was one of the teachers who raised the most awareness of the specific spot we should install our work. He taught us to bear in mind the exact dimensions of the room, he objects between pillars, etc”.
Jemmy Button Incorporation
The artist says: “I think my coming into the circuit has been gradual and always with a bit if luck. I’ve never put my energy into trying to become popular in the circuit. I’ve never been like those people who chase curators around and send thousands of résumés or catalogs to a lot of people. But if you happen to do an exhibition abroad, and someone who sees the exhibition gets interested later, she/he may call you. I work hard, I do a lot of exhibitions. That’s why people get to know me.”
How did you get your first exhibitions?
“My generation was very resourceful. We had been presenting exhibitions in different places since graduation. We opened exhibition spaces. We did an exhibition in that hall in Renca (one of Santiago’s municipalities), at Benjamín Vicuña Mackenna Museum, and at binational institutes. After graduation (1993), ‘Mono’, Mario, Justo and I created “Jemmy Button, Inc.”, which was a key factor to all of us. As usual, people who had done exhibitions abroad were getting more credit. We kind of followed this lead and started to contact people who may have been interested in our work. In 1994 we went to The Netherlands and also received our first FONDART grant.”
But you got it easier because Justo Pastor Mellado, right?
“I hope he doesn’t get offended, but I think what he did with us is overrated, although it is truth that he was treated as an equal. He took Jemmy Button to Curitiba (1995, XI Engraving Exhibition, Brazil), however, we did the rest. We got that exhibition in The netherlands only because Mono’s brother was living there. In 1996 something similar occurred. We sent our dossier to the Chilean Embassy in London, regardless of the fact that we didn’t know anybody there. ‘Taxonomías’ (Taxonomies) (with artist’s texts: one of the group’s most important works) was a book conceived by us. The bottom line is that Mellado’s job was to write about the project. He never took part in the works.”
On the verge of feminism
With artists such as Alejandra Munizaga (at first), Claudia Missana, Paz Carvajal and Ximena Zomosa, Mónica Bengoa has participated in specific projects and managed not to neglect her solo work. “Project of a Boundary” has been another “joint venture” that –at the beginning of the decade of the year 2000– has given her the chance to step over the threshold of new territories into which she would have never ventured on her own. This is how she got to know the New York gallery she was working with, Latin Collector. Bengoa had the chance to participate in the Madrid-based fair ARCO thanks to this gallery.
Jemmy Button represents some sort of harder conceptualism, and this group of women shows a work filled with other type of sensitivity. Do these joint ventures speak of fluctuations in your work, or you have two clear-cut work areas?
“I feel absolutely comfortable working on exhibition with anyone. However, I had many reservations about taking part in ‘Project of a Boundary’, because I had a problem with the fact that we were all women. I still have that problem. Although we worked very well and we all respect each other tremendously, we have different viewpoints. I don’t feel comfortable with the feminist thinking, because I’m not interested in playing the role of victim or superhero. I need to place myself in the intermediate are of normality.”
Were any of them feminist?
“Yes. I always find myself giving a moderate opinion, trying to tone down the feminist aspects, because I’m not interested in that. It is a work made by a woman, which shows from miles away. This is not where emphasis should be laid. However, other women from the group were quite conceptual; they work in close proximity to language, conduct powerful investigations and are very rigorous. Maybe I’m in the middle.”
On an international basis, you have dealt with important curators (such as Korean Yu Yeon Kim). How have you handled criticism in Chile? Have you worked with any other theoretician besides Justo Pastor?
“The truth is that my working with him hasn’t been a positive thing for me. He is a very confrontational figure who isn’t trusted in several areas. Because of my constant traveling, I have managed to keep myself out of this. Now I have started working with someone again (Adriana Valdés in ‘Enero, 7:25’ [January, 7:25]). I would say this is the very first time I work with someone, because, because Justo always had a point of view about the work and wrote without asking much about what I really was trying to express.”
How have you dealt with the political and cultural changes that have occurred during the post-dictatorship period?
“Politics and public affairs have not been my subject matter. Not because a lack of interest in what has happened. On the contrary, I always try to be tremendously aware of what happens around me. My work deals with other kind of policies, private ones, so to speak. I think the need of extending the boundaries of photography depends on one’s presence and on a certain notion of truth that the language is able to render.”
How much influence has had the development of the cultural institutionalism on you?
“Honestly, I think these last years I have kept myself out of this, mainly due to my trips, but also out of boredom. I feel that some people (in the art world) continue to drag things from the past, things that don’t make any sense whatsoever today, overused and clichéd concepts. I don’t feel part of that. Besides, presenting a solo exhibition this year –‘Enero, 7:25’ (January, 7:25)– has felt very strange.”
“I have been doing a lot of exhibitions abroad. Although my work is not local and can be understood in formal terms anywhere, there are other kinds of relationships here because of our own codes. The more specialized audience doesn’t care about what you do. Usually –unless some good exceptions– the view is regulated by what the audience expects to see rather thn the kind of reality that is there.”
The interpretations failed to raise to the occasion.
“I think people give too much importance to the private space thing and to the way I disclose my intimacy, because these works made from napkins (from 2002) are just one side of me. The audience here hasn’t seen other works. My work has other most interesting kind of mixtures. I get a bit tired of people insisting so much on the autobiographical subject. The everyday space is an excuse. Obviously that area needs investigation, but the transfer of images, the concept of photographic structure and the friction with the painting…”
Or with the digital language
“Absolutely. If I didn’t have a computer my work couldn’t exist”.
Mónica Bengoa (Santiago, 1969)
Mónica Bengoa studied at the Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile (1988-1992). She majored in Engraving. Communicative teachers such as Eduardo Vilches and Eugenio Dittborn encouraged her to experiment with photography. Soon she was drawn to an autobiographical production of objectual arrangements. She also majored in filmmaking. From 1993 to 1998, Bengoa was involved in the group “Jemmy Button, Inc.” Subsequently, she took part in a series of exhibitions called “Project of a Boundary”, along with several artists women of her generation. Some of the solo exhibitions are: “Para hacer en casa” (To do at home) (1992, Chilean-North American Cultural Institute); “203 fotografías” (203 photographs) (1998, Posada del Corregidor); “Tríptico en Santiago” (Triptych in Santiago) (2000, an advertising billboard on a building); “Sobrevigilancia” (Overvigilance) (2001, Galería Animal); “De siete a diez” (From seven to ten) (2003, Galería Oxígeno, Santa Cruz de la Sierra, Bolivia); “El color del jardín” (The color of the garden) (2004, Latincollector Gallery, New York, United States), and “Enero, 7:25” (January, 7.25) (2004, Galería Gabriela Mistral). Her international presence was widened from the year 2000, due to her participation in in-house workshops and projects such as “Políticas de la Diferencia” (Policies of the Difference) (2001, Recife, Brazil–2002, MALBA Museum, Buenos Aires, Argentina), as well as international events including the International Photography Festival of Rome (2003, Mercati di Traiano, Rome, Italy); the International Photography and Visual Arts Biennial of Liège (2004, Musée d’Art Moderne et d’Art Contemporain, Belgium), ARCO Art Fair (2004, Madrid, Spain) and Project of a boundary, portable affairs” (2005, Artspace, Sydney, Australia). Back in Chile, she was part of the emerging group of artists that Mellado put together for the retrospective “Chile: 100 Years of Visual Arts” (2000, Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, Santiago). Bengoa has financed her projects through FONDART and the Polock-Krasner Grant. Since her graduation in 1993 she has been working as a teacher in her Alma Mater. In 2007 she takes part in the exhibition “Poetics of the Handmade” (Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, USA), in “Daniel López Show” (NY) and represents Chile in the 52 Biennale di Venezia (Italy).