A famous story by Julio Cortázar narrates how Alina Reyes –beautiful, young, elegant– runs into a ragged beggar with an unsettling look on a bridge in a foreign and unknown city. Alina Reyes walks on and then looks at the beggar once more; but what she sees is Alina Reyes walking away. She then looks at herself, her body. Rags are hanging from her and her old, dirty and wounded hands. The story is a very good reflection of anxiety in a world as seen from a rather psychoanalytic perspective. In it, the other, hidden, terrible, repressed, contrary self goes on to “take over” the “I”. Alina Reyes’ name, in Spanish, is an anagram for “She is the queen and…”[i]
Cortázar’s story structure feels somewhat brutal, elemental, when compared to the one Mónica Bengoa includes in this same catalogue. The contrast seems interesting to me because it reveals how times, self-perception and ideas about the subjective have changed. Bengoa also deals with a double, an “alter ego”: but hers is not the psychoanalytical one from the Cortázar story, which, from a different viewpoint, appears rather romantic – related to doppelgänger fantasies. Bengoa’s bears no relation to extreme contrasts such as that between a queen and a beggar.
Bengoa’s story shows an other practically identical to “her”, the protagonist; but like Verlaine puts it, “neither totally the same nor totally something else”.[ii] The point of this story, unlike that of Cortázar, is neither a dramatic substitution nor a dramatic conflict, as with the doppelgänger. The minimal difference between one me and the other, the small intermediate space, a kind of quiet oscillation between the two: to be and not to be the same, or being the same with a minimal enigma, a quick glance; to be and to be, minimally also, “an other”, in Rimbaud’s famous phrase. An other that does not take possession of “her”: that stays at a precise distance, allowed by respect; and that reappears to her at fixed intervals, “sitting in front of her, smiling” “in the raft’s gentle movement…”
I see something like a cipher of her own poetics in Bengoa’s brief story. In this text about her more recent visual work, I would like to deal with some aspects of this.
In the second room at Gabriela Mistral Gallery, Mónica Bengoa presents a mural which covers the largest wall in its totality. Seen from afar it reveals not only its photographic origin, but also that its colors are those of a digitalized photograph as seen on a computer screen. When coming closer one can see that it is made of countless hand-colored squares recognizable as paper napkins. These reproduce the computer screen colors as exactly as possible, using a “color chart”, a set of already industrially determined colors applied on each of the napkins according to the work’s design. (The project’s written presentation mentions “pixel-napkins”). In the first room each of the small hand-made embroideries are also composed of “pixel-stitches” on toys photographed in their actual size. The toys, like the photographs, are the products of of mechanical reproduction, while the stitches, as well as the colored napkins, are handmade.
It may be useful to remember the origin of the word “pixel”. “Pix” is a familiar abbreviation (one of many in United States English) which refers to a movie or to a photograph, both of which are also called “pictures”. “El”, is short for “element”.[iii] The colored napkins, then, as well as the embroidered stitches, are elements with which the artist reconstructs a mechanical image.
By just describing Mónica Bengoa’s technical procedures, certain paradoxes become evident. The image is that of a recognizable household scene, but it is enormous, blown up far over its “natural” scale. Yet its surface is made of innumerable small elements, none of them an image in itself, barely an image element. The enormous image is photographic, which means infinitely reproducible, lacking an “original” to refer to and thus lacking the aura of the unique, and any trace of the artist’s handiwork. Its elements are nonetheless small, handcrafted; the paper napkins even bear the marks of the cloth on which they were placed when they were being hand-colored. The large and the small, the mechanical and the handmade, are both absent and present, affirmed and contested. The work builds on paradox; it stages paradox.
On the undecidable [iv]
This Bengoa mise en scène –as personal as it is– corresponds to a more general moment of art, which wanders away from binary oppositions: mechanical reproduction vs. handicraft, for example. Perhaps it has more to do with a form of contemporary thought in which paradox is given free play, and there is no intent of resolving the oppositions paradox implies.[v] (That was what I meant with “staging” both poles, playing with their possible relations, refusing an opposition that tends to privilege one and to obliterate the other.)
The work creates a scene for the undecidable, and its strength lies then in deconstructing oppositions, indefinitely suspending their resolution and preferring strangeness –the effect of estrangement– to any truth effect.[vi] Creating strangeness is her particular way of rendering visible that which, out of habit, we no longer see. Curiously enough, what is thus rendered visible is what “supports the regulated actions that mark our days”, according to the artist: that is, objects we use every day. “The attention I have put on certain objects we use daily is based on how little we actually feel their presence in our everyday life, at least in conscious terms”, she adds.[vii]
In conscious terms… Poetry, Armando Uribe once said, is an expression of the unconscious. Maybe not only that; but in art and poetry work is done on the very brim of the unconscious. And we approach such a scene with the oscillating movement required by what is undecidable and paradoxical.
“Al son de un suave y blando movimiento” [viii]
Bengoa’s story, at the end, speaks of a soft movement. When describing how her mural is created and put on the wall, she points out that only the upper part of the napkins will be stuck to the wall, so that “they may move if there’s a draft.”
The mural is perceived as enormous, yet is made of very small elements that permit and include a subtle, occasional tremor in the large-scale image. As soon as it is perceived it has already ceased: like a sudden and fleeting chill, the soft motion of paper, a minimal allusion to something like tiny wings.
A great fixated image, then, which incorporates its own movement, registering something apparently not memorable, a child’s bedroom. (“What is memorable” –says a character in Jim Jarmusch’s film Mystery Train– “will always be remembered. What you have to register is the insignificant.”)
The everyday and its subtle differences
This work, enero 7:25 / january 7:25, is part of an “exploration on the staging of everyday family life”, the artist says. As part of that exploration her previous works were mural installations of many photographs of her small children (“an extension of my own skin”) sleeping on different nights (En vigilia / Wakefulness), or brushing their teeth in successive days (En vigilia IV / Wakefulness IV). The photographs were apparently the same or very similar, their differences were sometimes very subtle, or, to use the term proposed by Duchamp, inframinces – infrathin (or ultrassotile in Italian…) It refers to the almost unperceivable difference between two apparently identical objects. “In time” Duchamp wrote, “the same object is not the same after a 1 second interval” – “what relations with the identity principle?”[ix] Remember Bengoa’s story: the minimal difference between her and “her, herself, sitting, watching her”, is infrathin, in that same sense. “I think”, Duchamp would also write, rather enigmatically, “that through the infrathin it is possible to go from the second to the third dimension.”
This shift towards another dimension (and the ensuing strangeness) also happens with subtle differences in these works, and in Sobrevigilancia / Oversurveillance (2001), which –through other media, this time using 9.160 dyed thistle flowers– creates an enormous mural showing the sink seen in En Vigilia IV / Wakefulness IV. The life in question here is that of everyday practices –the everyday strangeness which is covered by the surface of the image, and that reveals itself in its tremors and fragmentations. The strangeness of “specific operations –ways of doing– a different spatiality (…), an opaque and blind movement” which escapes “the imaginary totalization performed by the eye”, Michel de Certeau says in his The Practice of Everyday Life (L’invention du quotidien).[x] Only the totalization performed by the eye creates the illusion of being able “to look”. The fiction of knowledge is that of being only this viewing point, a point in which the power of seeing converges. Everyday life, the friction it constantly creates, is constantly exposing this as merely make-believe, a simulacrum.
In enero, 7:25 / January, 7:25 Bengoa creates a mise-en scène in which this “theoric” (e.g., visual) simulacrum is implicitly likened to, say, viewing a map. The large image –fragmented, dispersed, potentially shaky, and joined in the next room by the small, embroidered pixel-stitches, becomes something not to be looked over, but something to be walked in and walked through. The large image, hyperreal, bathed in artificial light, –but made of fragments and minimal differences– points at something else than its own light, whose fascination is akin to that of a computer screen. It manages to suggest something that is never that clear, which remains below the thresholds of visibility, and is contained in the intertwined textures of everyday practices.
The exhausting task of remaining awake and overvigilant, of “not losing sight of where you are passing”, in the words of the artist herself, is to keep seeing the dense strangeness implicit in everyday practices. It means a dedication to studying the “texturology” (the word is de Certeau’s), of the practices that “invent” everyday life: knowing “the conditions of sleeping, eating, cooking, getting dressed, brushing one’s teeth, etc.” the artist says. Attention is put on suggesting what de Certeau calls “l’invention du quotidien” a creativity described by him as “disperse, tactical and bricoleuse” that in multiple surreptititious ways gives form to everyday life. The course of such creativity is not included in any map or general view. The knowledge it implies is as blind as that obtained in love’s body-to-body contact. The work presents a hyperrealistic image which contains, suggests, arouses something not presentable: its own blindness, maybe; that which remains outside the light of the large image composed of small handicrafts that would disappear on any screen.
The everyday: truth as project and as resistance
The subtle poetics in these works by Mónica Bengoa… Maybe the run of this text has made it possible to suggest one or two hypotheses for future conversations, for future spaces of encounter.
There is the question of truth. “To know if it is Right or Wrong we have a very simple rule: the composition must be true… We have to describe what it is, what we see, hear, do.”[xi] Notebook in hand, the artist produces like the twins in the book entitled El gran cuaderno. Everyday life: that which is, what we see, what we hear, what we do, our practices. In which world? The one of “hyperreal” TV and computer screen simulacra, of digitalized images, in which reality disappears into its amazing resemblance to itself?[xii] What kind of sight, of hearing, what other senses willallow access to the truth today?
If these questions cannot be answered properly, it is because they are rhetorical: they imply their own answers – and those are contained in the suspicion, the doubt facing the possibility of describing” what it is, what we see, hear and do.” Bengoa’s work can be seen as a continuing activity headed towards sharpening the senses (of which there may be others, complementary to the proverbial five). It is about being able to see not only a totalizing and dazzling image. It is about working on that image, that false image of the everyday, time and time again: questioning it from the inside, from the infrafine differences that conform it and for which it functions as cover-up. The access to what we really see, hear and do is not a given. On the contrary, it is a project.
The area of work in this project is most private: one’s own skin. (We already know that her children are also “my own skin” for her). With one’s hands. On the brim of the unconscious. On the brims of experience, if one can talk about experience. Facing the difficulty of approaching (from a prudent distance, softly) one’s own subjective dimension, which implies both living and looking at oneself while living, both existing and slightly differing existence. The work is done against an impoverishment of sensorial experience and of the relation to the world when the world is dominated and absorbed by technical media. A “micro resistance”[xiii] in everyday life, through the feminine and the maternal –is proposed as alien and subversive to common clichés. It is a profoundly meditative practice, alert to the subtle and apparently anonymous operations relating to the “contention structures” which the artist sees in the reiterative gestures of everyday life. The manual craft serves as a clue and as a trace of that micro resistance, and bears witness to the existence of different, “other” timings, of different, “other” forms of movement.
enero, 7:25 / January, 7:25 turns the Gabriela Mistral gallery into the “current working space” where the project is displayed not only in physical terms but also in relation to a particular reception and exhibition context. Here (in one of this city’s “interstices”), Mónica Bengoa plays out not only her own project, but also some of the more contemporary concerns of art the world over. The viewer is invited to share in an exploration of the real in a time of hyperrealities, of the everyday in terms of research and work-in-progress, of the fine points of a “necessary instability”, of a suspension and differing, which should keep us “sufficiently alert, so we don’t stumble and fall”, in the artist’s own words.
Adriana Valdés. October 2004
[i] “Lejana/Far away” in Bestiario/Bestiary, first published in 1951.
[ii] Poèmes saturniens: “Ni tout a fait la même ni tout a fait une autre”
[iii] Nicholas Mirzoeff, An Introduction to Visual Culture, New York and London, Routledge, 1999, p.30.
[iv] A small homage to Jacques Derrida, whose death we lament while writing this text.
[v] My thanks to Ticio Escobar for a luminous conference he gave on the subject this year in Sao Paulo, as part of a cycle entitled “Zonas de resistencia/Zones of resistance”, during the 26th Biennial.
[vi] When saying “estrangement effect” I cite Victor Chlovski´s well-known text “L’art comme procédé´” in Théorie de la littérature, Textes des Formalistes russes réunis, presentés et traduits par Tzvetan Todorov, Paris, Seuil, pp.76-97.
[vii] Mónica Bengoa, quoted in Transferencia y densidad, Tercer período, 1973-2000/Transference and density, Third period, 1973-2000, Santiago de Chile, Museo de Bellas Artes/Fine Arts Museum, 2000, p. 97.
[viii] “Going along the gentle and soft movement”. From the poem “Gladiolos juntos al mar/Gladiolos by the Sea”, by Chilean poet Óscar Hahn.
[ix] Marcel Duchamp, Notes, translated by Paul Matisse, Boston, G.K. Hall&Co., 1983, cfr. pp.1-46.
[x] L’invention du quotidien, chapter 7, Marches dans la ville: “Voyeurs ou marcheurs”. The following text is greatly indebted to De Certeau.
[xi] In Mónica Bengoa, Cuaderno en mano/Notebook in hand. It is a quote from the Agota Kristof novel The Notebook.
[xii] Cfr. Jean Baudrillard, cited in Art in Theory, 1900-1990, Edited by Charles Harrison and Paul Wood, Blackwell, 1992, p.1050.
[xiii] Nicolas Bourriaud, “Les utopies de micro-proximités”, Spirale No.182, January-February 2002.