Among the most enduring themes of artistic production since the early decades of the twentieth century are the interplays between art and life and art in life and life in art. Generations of innovative practitioners have reinvented the morphologies, typologies, syntaxes, and visual modes in limitless ways enabling the spectator to perceive life’s ordinary people, sights, and things with fresh vision and new understanding. 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), and Janine Antoni (b. 1964). Each of these artists in turn have overlapped images of everyday people (sometimes themselves), common activities, events, places, and artifacts that might, if not for their artistic presentation or construction, go unnoticed simply because they are so basic to everyday sights and activities.
Mónica Bengoa has continued to investigate this diverse inheritance of the quotidian as the subject of her work, recording intimate images from her immediate surroundings. For Vigilant / En Vigilia (1999), for example, the artist photographed her sleeping children for a period of six months. Each of the 310 photographs was distinguished, one from the other, by the minute changes noted as they moved in their sleep, changing positions in their beds. For Vigilant IV, the artist’s children were photographed 640 times while brushing their teeth in the morning. This series formed a kind of topography of daily actions that defined her children’s (and, by extension, anyone else’s) customs at a given time and place.[i] Bengoa’s interest in the obsessive repetition of daily rituals not only serves as the starting points for her art/life dialogue, but also defines that dialogue. In an odd way, these rituals are not much different from Sophie Calle’s extensive series of photographs of unmade beds 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.
Bengoa’s new work titled The Color of the Garden is equally repetitive, labor intensive, ephemeral, and personal. The photographic images are of plants on windowsills (taken from her apartment on the second floor of a two-family residence), views of the front lawn seen through her living room window, sections 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.[ii] Some of these images are installed in the exhibition as photographs printed on watercolor paper; and others as large-scale wall murals in which the photographic images are transferred digitally to small paper napkins and then hand-colored, one by one, covering the entire surface. Bengoa 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.
Critically, Bengoa’s work compels us to stop momentarily and reconsider our own personal spaces, their configurations, and their meaning in our lives. They also challenge us to redefine the way we use our space, the way our space reflects upon us through the objects we include and arrange. Similarly, as in the case of some of the artist’s previous work, we become reengaged with the way we look at our dear ones, who to some degree are extensions of ourselves. Not only are we defined in part by what we do, but by how we occupy or design our surroundings, and how much of our time is taken up with the performance of everyday activities. These are the issues that Bengoa has focused on in her body of work since the late 1990s. The artist draws on a minimalist vocabulary of repetition and the grid, as well as a post-minimalist vocabulary emphasizing the artist’s touch, handcrafting, and the importance of (auto)biographical references to define a narrative. Her incorporation of these elements reveals a great deal of sensitivity and existential contemplation.
In Chile, Bengoa is a rising star in the contemporary art scene. Recently she has begun to exhibit internationally where her work in photography, printmaking, and performative actions further extend the liminal territories of an art/life dialogue begun long ago and reenacted with creative vigor into the present.
Julia P. Herzberg, Ph.D.
Art historian and independent curator
Exhibition brochure. New York, United States. 2004
[i] 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 familiar 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.
[ii] Bengoa credits her former art professor, Eduardo Vilches, who photographed a public plaza from his window over a period of time as the starting point of her explorations. Email communication with the writer, July 24, 2004.