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Intransitivity in the photographic image in the early work of Mónica Bengoa



Published in m. [una tentativa de inventario exhaustivo, aunque siempre inconcluso], Santiago, Chile. Ed EUONIA, p. 113-117. 2017.


From very early on Mónica Bengoa has focused her work on the study of photography. Even before graduating from the Universidad Católica Art School, the photographic image took on a central position in her artistic proposals and reflections. Even if this research has included a diversity of questions, methods and visual proposals –as can be observed in the works in this retrospective– it has been an aspect in particular that has “commanded” her inquiries and she has recurrently returned on it in a good deal of her production, this is, the intransitivity of the photographic image. Said intransitivity is mainly referred to overcoming the glance which, facing a photograph, heads towards satisfying the desire for immediateness –in the words of Bolter and Grusin (2000)–, seeking to recognize the referent, objects and figures represented therein –the Barthesian studium– and dodging its mediated character[1].

In her early images, Bengoa reflected on the issue of intransitivity by searching in her own photographic image for that which exposed the significant condition of the medium, without suppressing the referential motive or component. This can be observed, for example, in 203 fotografías (1998), in which the very elements represented (bodily segments, folds and marks) allude to textures, shapes, tonalities, framings that invite one to observe and to think photography as a form of representation –and not as mere trace– of reality. In the piece en vigilia (1999) for its part, the proliferation of repeatedly similar photos triggers the oversight of the theme or object of the image (everyday, familiar, recurrent) in favor of the observation on chromatic and tonal variation, the almost unperceivable changes in the angle of view, the various foreshortenings and shapes appearing there. These exercises also reflected on the formats and the spatial disposition of photography, its set up, juxtaposition and expansion beyond the limit of the exhibition space (in the case of Tríptico en Santiago, 2000) as methods for environment research. Likewise, photography scrutinized its own limits when putting itself into tension –without combining– with other mediums such as painting, drawing and engraving, and also with issues related to the volumetric shape in the Bengoa’s works.

The latter turns out to be gravitating in the visual exercises Bengoa will execute for a good deal in the following decade; in them the artist will rehearse manual transcriptions of photographs onto non traditional supports, composed of materials as diverse as they are prosaic: dyed thistles, paper napkins, colored thread and felt cloths/remnants. Perhaps it is during these transfer exercises, in the medial and material transits of the image begun in 2001 with Sobrevigilancia, that the intransitivity of photography is more clearly and, maybe, sophisticatedly weighed and visualized.



During most of the 1990s, Mónica Bengoa worked with photographs that alluded to body views or parts, some of them alluding to her own image, be they singular portraits that showed the artist in disguise or adopting a masculine appearance, or captures of a body fragment in particular. As a result, there was a systematic accumulation of discarded photographs, remnants that were never exhibited. Nonetheless, these cuttings were recovered and collected toward the end of the decade in 203 fotografías, conforming a kind of small corporeal atlas. This work included images of a diverse nature offering partial and segmented views of the body.

Even if on a quite more modest scale, a part of the procedure used in 203 fotografías reminds us of Gerhard Richter’s Atlas project[2]: the appreciation of discarded images, their classification by subject, their variable juxtaposition, among others. As Benjamin Buchloh has pointed out in his illuminating text on the piece by the German artist (1999), the notion of atlas was appropriated by twentieth century art –and by art history from Warburg on– in a more metaphorical mode[3], even contravening its nineteenth century definition, which understood it as a comprehensive and all-encompassing form of systematization of knowledge in all areas of the empirical sciences. Beyond the scale of the projects and their intentions, the interesting thing is revealing the gesture mobilizing the production of these works, in which the access to the image does not happen in isolation, but in a more complex framework that places and signifies it. This network does nonetheless not pretend to be totalizing or holistic, but rather seems to insist on its fragmentary and arbitrary character. And even if the taxonomic will is undeniable, the accumulations and juxtapositions of photographs allow for a pluri-central visualization, in which there is no single or logical system of touring and observation.

Thus, Bengoa’s work triggers certain associations among the images that compose it, from more general views –half or whole body– to close-ups or zoom-ins of scars, cavities and folds in which it is hard to determine what part of the body is represented. Also, the spectator runs into focused images and some other blurrier ones, as Ricardo Cuadros noticed (1998) the first time the work was set up, different shutter lengths (speeds) can be made out[4]. Equally, different textures and forms appear, rhyming among themselves but also being out of tune. That is how in certain sectors of the set that which is lineal is weighed, generating a particular rhythm among images alluding both to a fold or scar as well as to the union of lips or eyelids. This contrasts with a group of photographs in which, instead of what is lineal, it is the shading or mezzotints that capture the gaze.

It is also interesting to view this repertoire not only as an essay on a possible image of what is corporeal, but also as a study on bodies as a support for inscription. In that sense a kind of mirror between the motive of the installation and photography in its most indicative is produced, in a certain way arguing with what has been stated in relation to an intransitive gaze on the photographic image.



And even if 203 fotografías presents a complexity for the spectator, since the point of view can continuously vary, questioning any pre-established syntax, in the photographs themselves there is no authorial aspiration, this is, there is no inscribed artistic intention, they are rather amateur, home-made photographs. The same happens with the images that make up en vigilia, the first in a series of projects in which Bengoa systematically photographs her children undertaking insignificant and routine activities: brushing their teeth, having lunch, or in this case, sleeping.

Susan Sontag wrote that one of the first and main popular uses of photography in the twentieth century was recording memorable family events (2006: 22-23): weddings, birthdays, holidays, etc. Thus, photographing family moments –especially if there were children– became a kind of social ritual whose objective was to symbolically commemorate and re-establish the ties among the members of the clan[5]. On the contrary, nothing exceptional happens in Bengoa’s images. What is captured are those blank spaces, without distress, but, nonetheless, turn out to be absolutely necessary in order to produce the contrast between what is ordinary and what is memorable. One could think, then, that that which is represented in en vigilia sees itself represented in that dilated and homogeneous time-lapse in which events take place are overcome and discarded almost immediately: it is profane time, placed in between the moments of use and the practice of photography as a family ritual. A paradox, or perhaps an inversion of terms, is thus introduced, since photography reserved for ceremonies is demystified by the routine and even obsessive use of the technical device.

This repetition to the point of exhaustion of the same motive (310 images in total and presumably other discarded ones), precisely triggers the question for the procedure and execution of the work: a sleepless mother, who night after night –without exception– captures her children’s rest. One can see the passing of time represented in the images, the wake marked by seasonal cycles, perceiving both the more evident (in the color and design of the bed sheets) as well as the less obvious (the length or style of the children’s hair). This theme of the body demanded in the production process will see itself intensified –and taken to the limit– in projects of a greater scale the artist will develop in the following decade, such as Sobrevigilancia (2001), enero, 7:25 (2004) or her ejercicios de resistencia (2002) series, just to give a few examples. In the same way, and even if the photographic installations mentioned above cover a quite significant surface, the blown up image to a mural scale will become recurrent in Bengoa’s work starting in 2000. It is specifically in Tríptico en Santiago (2000) where this change of format is confirmed, in the treatment of what is private and what intimate, already visualized in earlier proposals in relation to what is corporal and family centered, will reach considerable dimensions and will imply its positioning in public space.



Tríptico en Santiago is composed of three photographs in which the artist’s children are seen performing the same act (eating), in the same place (the kitchen) at different times. The images were installed on a tri-vision billboard at the street intersection of Bellavista and Loreto. Thanks to the mechanically controlled triangular prisms, repeated and regular rotation of the different photographs was possible, thus producing a singular triptych whose modules were never perceived in unison.

Contemporary artists had rehearsed artistic appropriation of urban advertising spaces years before, with Cuban Félix González Torres and his Billboard of Bed (1992)[6] as an emblematic case.  Even if with quite different conceptual and visual intentions and proposals, in both works the same effect of strangeness is replicated facing an image whose function is transmitting a message immediately, but which on the contrary, turns out diffuse and undecipherable. The estrangement is produced because photography behaves ambiguously: because of its appearance and content it could perfectly comply with the aim of providing a product, but its mutism is disconcerting. In that sense, they are images, which are simultaneously placed in and out of context, operating under the visual logic of advertising but are at the same time distanced, turning ineffective.

In Tríptico de Santiago, the homemade photograph, devoid of splendor and the private and trivial scene enter into tension with maximum visibility and a central character of (public) space of location. Bengoa will explore this interesting divergence in several of her manual photographic image to non-traditional materials/supports transfer projects. As mentioned above, the first exercise in which the artist puts a transcription procedure to the test is in Sobrevigilancia, an installation of which there is only a visual registry and a few material vestiges.[7]

In this work, two interests converge, which had surrounded her for some years now. On one hand, and as we have seen, the research around the intransitivity of the photographic image, and on the other, the material explorations already observed in Cantidad y recurrencia: los vientos (2000) and in En Suspensión (2001), two murals of a quite different nature Bengoa made of natural flowers (thistles and evergreens).

During this artistic research process, Sobrevigilancia again highlights the issue of the vigilant gaze, which –as Sontag reminds us– saw itself intensified with the advent of the photographic device in the twentieth century and its manipulation in favor of the exercise of social control[8]. Even so, the attentive and vigilant gaze that filters into Bengoa’s image turns on what is trivial and insignificant, provoking a waste of technical resource. There, a perfectly normal bathroom sink sees itself represented in the mural, in which one can make out two small tooth brushes, toothpaste and a bar of soap. The question, then, is “what is that vigilant gaze aimed at?” or “with what aim is it really used for?”

Without a doubt, it is the transfer process of photography what demands an intense visual attention, meticulous and methodical. Even if the artist has taken advantage of computer programs in order to decompose the model image (which is never in sight for the spectator), elaborating templates in which the various color zones that conform the representation are delimited, the execution of the transfer is largely realized by rule of thumb. The procedure becomes even more complex if one considers the translation of photography is made toward a support made of dyed thistles, this is, something not traditionally known as an image medium. An unknown territory in which the technical and visual possibilities of the material in which the image is re-embodied are both explored and put to the test.

Thus, the question of what medium the photograph is transferred onto emerges, a pre medium, a new archaic medium? If Sobrevigilancia is put into perspective and observed in relation to certain murals in which Bengoa uses another type of materials and procedures in order to perform the photograph transference (hand colored napkins, thread stitches, cut out felt), it could be said that in each process different medialities appear: painting, engraving and drawing. Each mural then feeds from different aspects and characteristics of traditional media (color, line, texture, half-tones), without ascribing to any of them specifically. Thus, by means of the use of domestic materials, the artist has sought to simulate a conjunction of manual media to, at the same time, simulate the technical medium.

In these transfer exercises, intermediality, as Hans Belting understands it (2007), this is, the mutual influences (rivalries and dialogues) among the various media of the image, is stated as a way of studying its characteristics and specifics[9]. In the case of Sobrevigilancia, photography, on which the idea of a signifying transparency or neutrality has normally been poured on, de-hides its mediated condition by becoming, among other things, more pictorial. In this way, the thistle as a stain (irregular color unit) turns the outlines of the represented objects less sharp, making it hard to distinguish those elements supposedly in focus in the image. Thus, the immediateness imposed to the photographic medium is equally satisfied in the Bengoa’s work: referential objects are identifiable, but their simulated pictorialization, which for example, turns the toothbrush into a volumetric abstract green stain, makes the medium, and the media implied in it, simultaneously recognizable.

But the observation of the mural does not only behave like a visual demand for the spectator, the gaze also sees itself captivated by the sensual nature of the image. Despite the austerity of the chromatic palette, the dimensions of the work (9.160 thistles covering a total of almost fifty four square meters), the texture and the soft relief the dried dyed flowers contribute, tempt, provoke touch; impulse or reaction that struggles with self-moderation triggered by the weight of the gaze of the guard. From here on, Monica Bengoa’s works will, with ever increasing mastery, compensate the urgent study of the photographic medium with the sensory delight facing the image, which by means of the gaze, active in receptions that overflow and expand the mere visual in order to cover a bodily scale.

[1] Bolter, Jay David y Grusin, Richard. “Inmediatez, hipermediación, remediación”, en: Remediation: Understanding New Media, Eva Aladro (trad.), Cambridge: The MIT Press, 2000.

[2] An (ongoing) work in progress project initiated in 1962, in which the artist selects, classi es and orders an enormous diversity of photographic images, taken by himself, received as donations or extracted from printed media, into series. The over ve thousand photographs are organized in panels, collapsible units that are displayed on the wall in order to compose the Atlas.

[3] Buchloh, Benjamin. “Gerhard Richter’s Atlas: The Anomic Archive”. October, vol. 88, Cambridge: The MIT Press, p, 122.

[4] Cuadros, Ricardo. “Escenas de recuperación”, in: Exposiciones 1998, Santiago de Chile: Galería Posada del Corregidor, 1998, pp. 74-76.

[5] Sontag, Susan. Sobre la fotografía. México DF: Alfaguara, 2006, pp. 22-23.

[6] González-Torres installed the same monochrome photograph of an empty bed, whose pillows still retained the silhoue es of the heads that had lain there, on a series of di erent advertising billboards in New York.

[7] The dyed thistles that made up Sobrevigilancia were later reused in Persistence & de ection (2004).

[8] Sontag, op. cit., pp. 19-20.

[9] Belting, Hans. Antropología de la imagen, Buenos Aires: Kra Editores, 2007, p.63.

  1. © 2019 monica bengoa