“In photography there is a reality so subtle that it becomes more real than reality”
“Is passion what we are? Is that what we are in pictures? Is what we are in pictures almost real? Maybe it’s become the most real thing.”
I. The Museum and the Selfie
This is true story, or should I say a “real” story. In the summer of 2016 my wife, my teenage son and I swapped the indolent beaches and blistering sun of Spain’s southernmost territories for Paris’ cooler temperatures and its miles of paintings, sculptures and cultural monuments. After landing at Paris Orly, we quickly stashed our bags with the hotel’s concierge and proceeded, post haste, to the Place du Carrousel and its imposing ex-palace of kings, the Louvre. This was precisely where we encountered an unexpected philosophical conundrum: the problem of the real.
Thanks to my wife’s wizardry with my press pass, we shamelessly cut through a thicket of fellow tourists. But no sooner had we reached the ticket counter than said problem began to manifest itself acutely. It was barely nine in the morning and already the queue of dissatisfied visitors snaked around the lobby like a bread line. Oddly, the guests’ annoyance was more evident in their hands than on their faces. They fidgeted endlessly with Iphones and Android devices, texting, twittering and Facebooking—and, of course, taking endless pictures.
I am, no doubt, as familiar as the next 21st century human with celebrity culture, but I had never before seen dozens of people pushing and shoving to get pictures of themselves in front a simple museum sign: this one announced the entrance to the “Musee du Louvre”. Things got even stranger when we reached the art inside the museum. The Apollo Belvedere was so thronged it was literally unreachable; the Venus de Milo was surrounded by hundreds of jostling people brandishing antenna-like selfie-sticks; the room containing the Mona Lisa was jammed by metal barriers identical to those that herd visitors through airport immigration. Hordes queued there, waiting for an opportunity to approach Leonardo’s famous portrait and make duck lips into their phones.
Watching this bizarre phenomenon prompted a number of urgent questions. Among the less inflammatory were: What makes people mistake taking a quick snapshot of themselves with an actual experience? How has the selfie—that relatively new act of self-documentation which consists of a person taking a picture of him or herself to post to social media—effectively acquired an equivalent or superior status to the event, location or thing that is photographed. Also, how profoundly has the mediation of technological devices like cameras, computers and mobile phones changed the way we see the world?
One general answer is that sight itself has, in the parlance of cultural sociologists, become deeply acculturated. This means, chiefly, that everyday people, not just Paris-addled, lemming-like tourists increasingly see reality through the intervention of an ever-growing glut of devices today. This acculturation—as most important artists around the world have known for decades—owes its condition to the ubiquity of photography. That 19th century invention has transformed reality both gradually and completely in ways that we are still coming to grips with.
As the photography critic Andy Grundberg wrote in his brilliant book about photography and postmodernism, The Crisis of the Real, the rapidly evolving innovations of our time have fundamentally altered our way of seeing. But rather than follow each other like succeeding generations, these so-called advances instead pile up like extremely porous geological strata. The following quote puts the issue in a nutshell: “It seems impossible in this day and age that one can have a direct, unmediated experience of the world. All we see is seen through the kaleidoscope of all that we have seen before.”
II. The Artist Asks the Right Questions
The Chilean artist Mónica Bengoa has made it her life’s work to ask fundamental and intensely visually literate questions about what is and is not “real” about images. Her art, among other things, consists of a critique of our conditioned ways of seeing, but also provides an evolving reflection on the nature of representation itself. That representation, an artist like Bengoa knows, is carried on primarily by the medium of photography. The lingua franca of contemporary images, photography effectively represents (and misrepresents) the modern world—from advertising to digital film, from photojournalism to Youtube—yet its structures remain mostly invisible thanks mostly to the medium’s ubiquity.
Bengoa carries on the tradition of a number of better known late 20th century postconceptualists—artists as varied as John Baldessari, David Hockney, Chuck Close and Cindy Sherman—as she investigates an expanding representational field that remains at least as contested and problematized as it was back in the 1970s and ‘80s. Notably, that same field is now flooded with an even greater deluge of images; a situation that, for certain artists, demands more rather than less historical reflection. If Bengoa’s intensely manual, photo-based artworks exhibit a constant hyper-awareness about existing within a camera-bound culture—an awareness that is identical to that of many canonical postmodern artists—her alertness to that condition avoids facile antagonisms.
A far-flung pioneer in the field of quotidian reality and its tenuous relationship to the contemporary image, the Chilean artist has, since the beginning of her career, consistently pitted increasingly unstable photographic processes against the stubborn solidity of traditional arts and crafts. In early artworks such as Sobrevigilancia (Over Vigilance) 2001, and Ejercicios de Resistencia: Absorción (Resistance Exercises: Absorption), 2002—in which the artist composed monumental images of domestic interiors derived from homely snapshots using, respectively, dried flowers and restaurant napkins—her results map out the shortfalls of the medium. Presented in the guise of labor-intensive reinterpretations, her XL versions of modestly scaled mechanical reproductions literally materialize (or is that re-materialize?) photography’s increasingly ephemeral connection to the real.
A point of clarification is in order here: Bengoa investigates photography for several fundamental reasons. Firstly, she does so because the medium is the common coin of cultural image exchange. Secondly, she explores the medium’s quiddity because photography is, as everyone knows, an explicitly reproducible medium. A third reason has to do with the fact that the vast majority of the world’s photographs avoid the historical aura of “artistry” and “authorship”—the exact auratic properties that postmodern theory has consistently rejected in media like painting and sculpture. Lastly, there’s the artist’s everyday immersion in contemporary life: images from TV, films, advertising, corporate branding, public relations and, increasingly, social media.
While popular culture has not directly inspired Bengoa’s artwork to date, there is no denying that the global industry of mass-image making has helped shape this artist’s outlook on the expanding and omnipresent properties of machine reproduction.
Bengoa’s intention in examining the representational possibilities of photography, it should be said, is neither to become a photographer herself nor to ally her remarkably reflexive practice with the medium’s fine art tradition. Instead, her exploration of everyday photographic images use the medium as a trampoline or jumping off point to investigate other media and other materials—these include paper, felt, dried flowers, embroidery and books—while invoking an up to date, epistemologically oriented brand of forensic conceptualism. Her approach favors rigorous method over artistic expression; the results, impressive as they are, never rely on technical mastery or truthfulness as arguments for visual persuasiveness.
“I’m not interested in painting on canvas, since I think that can sometimes alienate viewers by showing them something that they are incapable of doing,” Bengoa tellingly told the Chilean newspaper El Mercurio on the eve of her Venice Biennale presentation in 2007. “I always thought anyone with enough patience could execute my work; it’s got nothing to do talent or having a great hand.”
No wonder then, Bengoa cast back to the father of Minimalism for her Venice Biennale outing. Titled Some Aspects of Color in General and Red and Black in Particular—in reference to the last text written by Donald Judd prior to his death in 1993—Bengoa’s four large murals used thistles, dyed various shades of red and black, to present yet another careful analysis of photography. This time her examination centered around the artist’s interest in the effects of macro-photography. Each mural presented close-up images of insects, like one might find in a book on entomology. Blown up to unnatural proportions, her subjects appeared monstrous, not insect-sized; an impression reinforced by the murals’ chromatic limitations. Another visual feature of Bengoa’s installation concerned her handmade “pixels” (the artist has on occasion referred to her basic image units as “pixels”): the fact that thistles are funerary flowers provided a ready-made lapidary metaphor for photography’s much vaunted documentary value.
In her 2007 interview with El Mercurio, Bengoa flatly stated her position as an artist vis a vis photography as both a medium and an all-enveloping cultural phenomenon: “The medium becomes the work’s content the minute you stand somewhere to look at anything. That distance, it seems to me, allows the viewer to look at things anew. An image can make possible an encounter with a certain visual truths, despite all of the possibilities for digital manipulation that we know exist thanks to Photoshop.”
III. An Archeology of Images
An archeologist of the way we see, Bengoa’s more recent works have extended her observations about the limitations of photography to several new media: images of found text have been rendered with new materials, among them felt and embroidery. Her first experiments in this new modality began in 2010 with a work she lengthily titled Einige Beobachtungen über Insekten: Langhornbiene (Eucera longicornis) or Some considerations on insects: Long-horned Bee (Eucera longicornis).
An enveloping work that featured the use of German-language encyclopedias of natural history, Bengoa photographed these books of flora and fauna in order to translate their text and pictures into large-scale tapestries. In the process, the camera’s distortions of both text and image were made inescapably physical (consider, for example, the effects of lack of focus, camera angle and shallow depth of field).
From there, Bengoa moved onto her newest experiment: making a room-sized photo-based installation using nothing but cloth and text. Borrowing from the postmodern canon—namely, a section of Georges Perec’s book The Infraordinary in which the writer recursively itemizes multiple items on his desk—Bengoa transformed what is essentially a literary listicle first into a stencil, and then into a four part image environment sliced out negatively from separate lengths of charcoal-colored felt.
The final effect of the work, which she titled Still Life / Style Leaf (2014), underscores photography’s ekphrastic relationship to the world by literalizing it. By materializing not just text but an age-old literary device as an enfolding image, Bengoa gives physical form to her ultimate artistic ambition: “to address what commonly passes unnoticed, that which does not seem to have any relevance, but nevertheless is a vital part of our relationship with the world around us.” Put another way: Bengoa’s oeuvre has long been devoted to make photography and its technical supports more, rather than less, visible.
These and other images Bengoa has borrowed from what Perec has termed “the infraordinary” allow for an extensive examination not just of habitual aspects of everyday life, those events and things that are neither banal nor exotic, but also of the hidden machinery that records—or, alternately, chooses not to record and even misrepresents—that which human beings experience as real and meaningful. It is precisely those experiences, the artist argues, that are often obscured by photography’s expanding ubiquity.
As Roland Barthes writes in Camera Lucida, photographs declare that what you’re looking at really existed, as actuality, not as metaphor. Yet, it turns out, in our time even that certainty has slipped away. Rather than have photography incarnate “the presence of a thing,” the medium Barthes surveyed back in 1980 has become increasingly susceptible to manipulation, to what contemporary commentators call “contextuality,” to outright falsification (as in “fake news”) and to a viral attack of photographic narcissism (the selfie) unlike anything the world or the history of image-making has ever seen before.
In this new image dystopia the world needs artists like Mónica Bengoa—figures who take careful measure of our image world and report back intelligently, dispassionately, and with rare insight. Her extensive and visually powerful research is predicated on the notion that life is an edifice, which we build, in part, to hide its foundations—but also on the idea that the difference between an edifice and a ruin may be hard to detect.