“Everyone is a literalist when it comes to photography,” Susan Sontag wrote in one of her many attempts to unmask the seductions of the 20th century’s predominant image machine. An invention (or set of inventions, if one considers cinema and the rapidly replicating digital spawn of mechanical reproduction) that rendered the mimetic operations of 18th century art largely obsolete, the widespread use of photography hides at least as much as it reveals today. Two hundred years after the development of the medium, few folks trust its once compelling directness. Fewer still believe –in our age of altered selfies and whole cloth political fabrications– its “documentary” function to be made up of anything more than an unsettled grab bag of tacit half-truths.
So it has come to pass that the invention film critic André Bazin once called “the most important event in the history of the plastic arts” has, in the early days of the 21st century, turned into both the world’s most ubiquitous recording device and its most suspicious kind of technology. More surprising still: just a handful of important artists devote themselves presently to understanding the epochal nature of photography’s evolution. Among them is the multi-media creator Mónica Bengoa. A far-flung pioneer in the field of quotidian reality and its tenuous relationship to the contemporary image, the Chilean artist has continued to pit increasingly unstable photographic processes against the stubborn solidity of traditional arts and crafts. Her results map out the shortfalls of the medium. Rendered in the guise of labor-intensive reinterpretations, her eye-catching versions of mechanical reproductions achieved via homespun media literally materialize (or is that re-materialize?) photography’s increasingly ephemeral connection to the real.
An artist who has spent decades translating photographs of domestic bliss into intensely manual practices such as drawing, painting, needlepoint, stenciling, fabric cutting, and pattern tiling, Bengoa has recently migrated to the use of found text to make photography and its technical supports more, rather than less, visible. Her first experiments in this new modality featured the use of German-language encyclopedias of natural history: carefully photographed books of fauna and flora, their pictures and descriptions became, in her hands, large-scale tapestries capable of classifying both natural phenomena and the highly unnatural distortions of the photographic camera (consider for example, the idea of a 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, Georges Perec’s Still Life / Style Leaf, which features a recursive itemization of multiple items on a writer’s desk– Bengoa transformed this literary listicle first into a stencil, and then into a four part image environment sliced out negatively from separate lengths of charcoal-colored felt.
A work that gives solid form to ideas that would otherwise remain highly abstract –the artist made sure to challenge the camera’s lens by crumpling individual sheets of paper containing Perec’s story before equivocally picturing their imperfections– Bengoa’s four-sided installation constitutes a physical translation of some of photography’s most dubitative functions. Where the camera records a lack of focus, the twisted contours of Perec’s text acquire especially meaningful relief. Where visual information is scarce –say, for example, in areas of a reproduction where high contrast occurs– Bengoa provides evidence of that absence in the shape of felt letters piled up on the floor. Few artworks today problematize complex themes with such thoughtful immediacy.
Taking a page from Sontag, Bengoa makes physical that which remains largely unseen both inside and outside the camera (for the latter, consider momentarily the world’s vast image web). Indeed, everyone is a literalist when it comes to photography, but few more so than this Chilean artist. A figure who knows that basic truths are at stake in photography’s multiplying slippages –specifically those having to do with how we are taught to see– she consistently reminds us of just how far modern images have to go before they actually, honestly reengage with the real.