Among the most enduring themes throughout the twentieth century are the connections between art in life and life in art. Artists continue to reinvent the morphologies, typologies, syntaxes, and visual modes, in seemingly limitless ways that enable the spectator to perceive life’s ordinary people, sights, and objects with fresh vision and new understanding. Mónica Bengoa is a contemporary artist whose exceptional work has made us think anew of the importance of the everyday activity, event, place, and artifact as subject in art. Bengoa privileges people’s routine chores or occupations that might, if not for their artistic presentation or construction, go unnoticed simply because they are so mundane.
Bengoa’s installation Some aspects of color in general and red and black in particular / Algunos aspectos del color en general y del rojo y negro en particular at the 52nd Venice Biennial consists of four large wall murals with 28,000 thistle flowers that re-create the anatomy of insects. Using a macro lens, she magnified the minute details of different insects, which when projected on the walls function like large-scale drawings. The artist then meticulously covers every detail of the insects’ anatomies with the thousands of thistles, leaving their outlines barely visible. The tonal variations within the floral massing –nine reds in two of the images, and nine greys and blacks in the other two– create a sense of depth, texture, and sensorial pleasure, thereby disguising the frightening appearance of the gigantic images of insects one might associate with horror movies.
Bengoa’s work during the previous nine years expands the lessons of minimalism: repetition and the grid; and the artist’s touch, emphasis on handcrafting, the importance of (auto) biographical references. Her large-scale wall installations are a study in counter-expectations. Although ephemeral, their production is labor-intensive. The work is visually elaborate, and, for its duration on the wall, it remains a traditional art object.
In The color of the garden / El color del jardín of 2004, for example, Bengoa took photographs of plants on her windowsills, views of the front lawn from her living room window, areas of her bedroom with its bed and night table, the living room with a sofa, books, fragments of artworks, and doors –open and closed. These images comprise a composite but nonlinear scene of the artist’s interior living space, with a view to the outdoors. Some of the images were installed at Latin Collector Gallery in New York as photographs, and other as large-scale wall murals in which the photographic images were transferred digitally to small paper napkins and then hand-colored, one by one, covering the entire surface. The artist uses hundreds, sometimes thousands, of napkins in which fragments of images, originally captured by the camera, are pieced together to compose the large-scale composition.
Mónica Bengoa conceived of a sequence of wall installations titled Kitchen of 2003-2004, which was to have depicted her performing chores in the kitchen. In the different venues, each ephemeral scene would have been created with approximately 800 hand-colored paper napkins. In Ejercicios para el fortalecimiento del cuerpo / Exercises in strengthening the body of 2002, the photographs, ink-jet printed on watercolor paper, are of the artists performing domestic scenes, and in Resistance Exercises of 2002 the artist depicts common kitchen utensils on thousands of small paper napkins. En Vigilia 4 / Vigil IV (2001-2002), Bengoa photographed her children every day for seven months while they brushed their teeth at the bathroom sink. The 640 photographs from that series reaffirmed the artist’s keen interest in the obsessive repetition of daily rituals as starting points for her art / life dialogue.
Sobrevigilancia / Extreme Vigilance of 2001 is an enlarged image of the artist’s bathroom sink created with 9,160 dry flowers in tones of green to form a wall-size mural. That work is a forerunner in terms of the materials used in the Venice Biennial wall murals. In En Vigilia / Vigil of 1999, an earlier exploration of Vigil IV, is also an extensive series of photographs in which the artist captures her children sleeping every night over a period of five months. At the end of the project, the 310 photographs of them were distinguished one from the other by the small changes noted as they moved in their sleep. Both Vigil IV and Vigil form a kind of topography of daily actions that define her children’s and, by extension, anyone else’s customs at a given time and place. Bengoa’s interest in the repetition of daily rituals not only serves as the starting point of her art/life dialogue. In an odd way, these rituals are not much different from Sophie Calle’s extensive series of photographs of unmade beds shots in a hotel room that, over time, registered the sleeping positions of the unknown hotel clientele. In the conceptual work of Calle, however, the spectator never saw the sleeper’s figure, only the impressions left on the wrinkled sheets. The person’s identity and activities were left to the viewer’s imagination. In contrast, Bengoa’s series were actual biographical documents of her offspring whose presence was fixed for a moment in time, images that might be placed in the family photo album.
Critically, Bengoa’s work compels us to stop momentarily and reconsider our own personal spaces, their configurations, and their meaning in our lives. It also challenges us to redefine the way we use our space, the way our space reflects upon us through the objects we include, arrange, and observe. Some aspects of color in general and red in black in particular is less about the artist’s explorations concerning her private space and its routine aspects as it is about creating a more public space that somewhat dwarfs the spectator, almost to the point of feeling overwhelmed. Bengoa’s materials and processes remain similar, but she has begun to use the camera for different ends. Instead of capturing the prosaic at home in hundreds of sequential shots, she captures a few macro shots of the prosaic outdoors, thereby enlarging our perception of nature.
The following conversation between Julia P. Herzbergh (JPH) and Mónica Bengoa (MB) took place over several months in 2003. It is included here because it provides an understanding of the artist’s processes and concepts for her photo-based installation work.
JPH: Some where in the drumbeat monotony of routine rituals such as sleeping, washing, or grooming, you have perceived a vital pulse (energy, a sign of life). Why were you interested in capturing the repeated moments in your children’s lives?
MB: My work has focused essentially on staging the scenes of everyday life. I have consistently recorded activity and situations in the domestic environment. I have captured my children as objects in these photographs in situations that are not memorable, that do not stand out in a family’s history; rather, they take hold because they are not distinctive but just normal. I believe that domestic routines turn into rituals that sustain our notion of identity. Through repetition, ritualized domestic routines not only become visible but they also establish a time frame. I am interested in focusing on these routines because of their fragile and ephemeral nature. And while routines are fleeting, they also provide structural support in the safe space of “home”.
JPH: More recently, in Resistance Exercises (2002), you seemed to have found a kind of poetry in the depiction of common kitchen objects such as pots, pans, and stoves. What is it that attracts you to the portrayal of common objects in everyday life? Or, for that matter, what attracts you to performing kitchen chores as a subject in your act?
MB: My focus on certain objects from everyday life is mainly based on their unnoticed presence, at least on a conscious level, in our daily round of activities. In recording these kitchen objects, I decided to perform domestic chores of the most routine sort, in an attempt to create a sense of familiarity for the viewer, who can in turn relate to these kind of objects.
In Resistance Exercises: Rubbing and Resistance Exercises: Absorption, I took pictures of old kitchens in modest restaurants in La Vega, a popular market in downtown Santiago. These works were intended to be exhibited in Boston and New York. Therefore I thought I should broaden my notion of domestic objects, from my home to that larger one –the city where I live. In the market I found large family-sized pots, worn-out kitchen utensils, and tiled walls stained with leftovers from previous meals. I was not as interested in recording the formal or functional features of the kitchen utensils as I was in capturing the traces left by constant use.
JPH: You come from a strong background in printmaking. (It was your major as an undergraduate, and now you teach printmaking at the Catholic University.) For the last several years (2001-2003), your work has involved innovative printmaking techniques. Can you describe the processes you will use in Kitchen, a work similar in form to Resistance Exercises: Absorption (2002), a wall mural for which you used 1,330 small paper napkins?
MB: During the last two years I completely changed the methods and materials I use when I transfer photographic images. I did this my interchanging materials with other media and supports, by inverting formal strategies derived from drawing and painting, and by including the use of objects. These methods have allowed me to create an effective transfer device for producing large mural paintings made from common objects from everyday life. The final work keeps the reproductive quality of the original photographic structure. My proximity to printmaking has allowed me to expand its processes and incorporate frottage in my work, among other techniques.
In the series Resistance Exercises, the original images were photographs of popular kitchen utensils that I later retouch digitally to differentiate the diverse chromatic areas. After redrawing every specific color zone, I print the outline on the paper napkins. Trying to be true to the original chromatic referent, I “paint” each napkin with crayons by using a rubbing technique (frottage) over the tablecloth on my dining room table, so that the texture of the surface transfers onto each napkin.
JPH: You have spoken to me about your interest in focusing on the fragile aspects of the daily rituals because you find in them the possibility of building a new “home”. Could you define what you mean by building a new home?
MB: My production process inevitably involves going back and forth, to and from the house. These crossings generate a certain state os suspension that requires me to build a protective shell in order to survive these constant transitions, “to carry a house on my back.” Having learned to survive that constant passage from place to place (from home to museum), I can set up my “studio of the moment” in any new space.
Julia P. Herzberg, Ph.D.
Art historian and independent curator
 Among the many outstanding artists who have made us think anew of the importance of the ordinary as a defining element of art are first Duchamp, then Warhol (b. 1928), and many of his generation, continuing with the more recent conceptual artists Robert Wilson (b. 1941), Hanne Darboven (b. 1941), Linda Montano (b. 1942), Ana Mendieta (b. 1948), Sophie Calle (b. 1953), Félix González Torres (b. 1957), and Janine Antoni (b. 1964).
 Bengoa acknowledges her former art professor, Eduardo Vilches, who photographed a public plaza from his interior window over a period of time as a conceptual point of departure. Email communication with the author, July 24, 2004.
 The exhibition did not take place due to funding restrictions.
 In this regard, we recall the recent work of the Guatemalan artist Alejandro Paz and the Costa Rican artists Miriam Hsu and Oscar Ruiz-Schmidt whose photography captures immediate familial experiences in the private sphere in order to expose the conventions or discourses that provide multiple readings. See Jaime Cerón, “The 5th Biennial That Looks to the Caribbean”, ArtNexus 52:3 (2004): 91.