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I. The face of things

One’s own body, captured in its folds and details, posing in a medium shot in front of the camera or with the back turned towards it, absorbed in domestic chores, sleeping. The bodies of others, a child sleeping or brushing their teeth, of subjects that pose while changing clothes, decomposed in a grid of exchangeable parts. Wind flow, rainfall, climate zone and sea current diagrams. The image of a car seen from above, loaded over successive stages with diverse objects, also built by modules that progressively change as days go by. Domestic spaces and objects, trivial: bedrooms, kitchens, gardens and bathrooms; wall sockets, power switches, toys, vegetables, flowers, insects, book spines and pages. At first sight, the repertoire of images Mónica Bengoa works with seems extremely diverse, dispersed and somehow deliberately irrelevant, as if each work’s theme was nothing but a pretext for the laborious displays of craft that characterize her recent work, or for the exploration of the possibilities and implications of the techniques she works with.

When covering her work in a linear, chronological way, a possible narrative is profiled, ranging from the exhibition of what is private and family related in a format seemingly faded, devoid of any virtuosity (amateur photography), towards large format works and an increasing impersonality in her subjects, built facing considerable technical difficulties. The gesture of the artist of turning her back to the camera she frontally faced before in ejercicios de fortalecimiento del cuerpo: flexible y distensión (exercises for the strengthening of the body: flexible  and relax, 2002), her transition from the photographs of her children sleeping or brushing their teeth to the photographs of rooms empty of any human presence, gardens and books may be read as a tour ranging from the exhibition of what is private to the exploration of what is object-like, of what is nonhuman, even (including the sustained exploration of the world of insects to which she has dedicated several works).

Without wholly refuting this impression, it seems to me that Bengoa’s work is better defined by the loyalty to certain issues, certain questions and procedures, but above all to a certain mode of seeing, that this retrospective conjures if the work is covered non sequentially. To say that her work transitions from the presentation of bodies towards an exploration of printed words would be not realizing that in both cases a glance is at stake, a glance incarnated in a body, compelling us to look from our own body, to feel it in a virtual contact with the body in the piece, which has gradually turned more sensual and tactile as the years go by: a material such as felt, which the artist has explored for a number of years, does not only question vision, but, even at the distance of contemplation in a museum or gallery, suggests a manual contact with the work in order to feel its texture, its softness, its warmth. 

Perhaps in the works in which she astonishing and meticulously reproduces the way in which the shape of letters is transformed, in the photography of a crumpled page transposed on felt or cut out paper, the author exposes herself more, reveals more about herself, than in the photographs of her early work in which we see her defiantly posing before the camera. Her books’ spines and the decision to exhibit them, of showing herself in them, perhaps tell us more about a personality than the enigma of a face. A pig, a turtle or a toy mouse, the extreme close-up of an ant, a bee or a bug, up to wall sockets or latches, extreme and caringly embroidered, are self portraits in a way, more vivid testimonies of a temperament than the exhibition of one’s body.

Cinema theorist Béla Balázs used to say that said art’s close-ups turned everything one would see with that degree of detail and detention into a face: a clock, a hand, a flower produced in us the same empathy as a human face seen from so up-close[1]. “A man”, Borges writes, “sets himself the task of portraying the world. Over the years he fills a given surface with images of provinces and kingdoms, mountains, bays, ships, islands, fish, rooms, instruments, heavenly bodies, horses, and people. Shortly before he dies he discovers that this patient labyrinth of lines is a drawing of his own face.”[2] This woman drawing gardens, objects, spaces and fruits also shows us the outline of a body, a body busy with the constant act of looking, of examining, of learning while making, producing simulacra of things in order to understand them only as does someone manually working on matter.

To take, as Ponge wrote, sides for things, scrutinize their faces, means opposing the forcedness of personality, the exploration of the internal labyrinths of the self and the spectacular theatricality of affections. It implies opting for shyness and discretion, to, in a disciplined and stubborn manner, remain out of the frame. But it is also about recognizing and revealing herself in the objects being collected and exhibited, chosen for one to spend time on them, in order to broaden and exhibiting them in a degree of detail that turns them alien, as if they had never been seen before. There is not, then, an intimate pole, confessional, sincere and a formal pole, impersonal and aestheticizing in Bengoa’s work, but variations on the body, the glance, images, the world and the everyday routine in which they interact.


II. Fictions of everyday life

In his book In Praise of Everyday Life on 17th century Dutch painting, Tzvetan Todorov is interested in this period as a moment in which everyday life becomes an organizing principle of paintings: not that everyday activities and spaces had never been represented, but that they were always submitted to the higher goal of “elaborating an exhaustive and systematic relation of life’s situations and illustrating a preexistent order.”[3] For Todorov, Dutch painting proposes us a lesson of a moral order of which we still have a lot to learn from, it suggests us the idea that beauty “is not beyond or above vulgar things, but within, and it suffices to observe them in order to take it out of them and showing it to the world”. These painters knew how to, he continues, “rejoice with the mere existence of things, making what is ideal and what real interpenetrate, and therefore find the meaning of life in life itself.”[4] This lesson would blur little by little in a kind of painting that keeps dialoguing with everyday life, but is evermore interested in going from being a representation to function as a presence. In the 19th century, he writes, “the world painting represents has lost its value. Everything related to it is now considered anecdotic and is rejected in the name of the purity of art. (…) From now on images have to be seen as such, as pure presence that does not incite advancing towards anywhere else.”[5]

It would be fitting to introduce many shades into this reading of Dutch painting and the quite thick summary of complex processes of the history of art Todorov proposes, but his text opens up a space from which to conceive a lot of the art of our time related to this tradition of seeking beauty in what is non-transcendent, in what is grandiose, sublime, but in the grid of gestures, spaces, objects and everyday actions, in what Georges Perec called the “infra-ordinary”: “that which seems so much a matter of course that we have forgotten its origins.” It is about, Perec continues, questioning “bricks, concrete, glass, our table manners, our utensils, our tools, the way we spend our time, our rhythms.”[6] Bengoa’s work can be inscribed in this line and is also part of a return to figuration by many artists late into the last century, a return to representation conceived no longer as a transparent window to the world, but as a lens transfiguring it.

Now, this meticulous self-ethnography Perec speaks about seems easier than it is: everyday life in not what is there, really, ready to be captured without any further ado and be available at hand in order to portrait it. Everyday life is invented, fabricated. It is produced as a dimension of the existence of the artists looking at it, making it appear as something when contemplating and capturing it in their canvases or texts, and any documentation giving account of it necessarily has a dose of fiction, of staging. Working on everyday life is transforming it, shaping it, making it appear and creating it.

It has been said that the choice of everyday life themes was one of the art history movements that made the gaze turn toward painting as a presence: if the subject matter is trivial, what is important is how it is represented, how it is presented before one’s eyes. There, certainly, is some of all this in Bengoa’s work, which in her artworks invites us to look at, less than what is shown to us, than to the way in which that which is shown to us came to appear before us. The transfer process from the photographic medium onto different supports and techniques marked by a high degree of manual labor, such as embroidering and multilayer felt fretwork, produces a strong tension between the level of realism and the detail of the image that appears and the way in which we perceive what was made to appear, a bit like if the artist had set out to enter the camera obscura of the photographic process and turning the chemical process or the one of digital register occurring there slow and laborious in an instantaneous, automatic manner.

At the same time, the works of Mónica Bengoa, even the more abstract ones, always show us something, making us look at an object appearing before us in its complexity and density, which produces a paradoxical illusion of material presence (we know we are in front of a multitude of thistles, but we think we see a bathroom sink, we see it as if it was there at the same time we see the thistles with which it is made). Her works tell us: take your time with this object or place you would for no reason look at if I had not taken it out of the world, captured it like an image and exhibited it before your eyes, out of context, so as for you to look at it like the first time. Stop on this socket, this toy car, this eggplant, this hole in the wall, observe the way the light hit them in a unique moment, in a precise instant.


III. The microscopic gaze

In one of the meetings we had to speak about her retrospective exhibition, when I asked her for details on the distribution of the works in the museum space, Mónica took me to her workshop, where she pointed at a scale model of the museum in which she had displayed small size reproductions of the works in a tentative order. This is, certainly, a common practice for artists who want to imagine how the works will look like positioned specifically and make sure to find the optimal way to arrange them. But in this case the gesture takes on a special charge due to the role scale transformation procedures have in her work. I looked at the scale model for some time, imaginarily circulating through the museum halls reduced to the scale of a toy.

All work of art, Lévi-Strauss proposes in The Savage Mind, is a reduced model of reality (even works of a monumental or natural size, “since graphic or visual transposition always supposes renouncing to determined dimensions of the object”[7]), a miniature destined to grant us an illusion of power over things by means of an object homologous to them, in an operation located in between mythical and scientific thought. There is some of this in Bengoa’s work, which transposes restricted aspects of reality with a rigor that has a lot in common with obsession, due to its extreme meticulousness, but also with games, due to the gratuitousness of the challenge in each work she sets out to make, without any other goal than the pleasure of exploring what happens, and with the certainty that said self imposed difficulty (that which the members of the Oulipo group called constrained writings, limited, faced with impediments) will show us new ways of looking.

Now, it is not trivial that Bengoa’s changes of scale tend toward the production of images in which the object is extremely magnified, such as her images of insects, her enormous greenish sink reproduced with thistles or her felt murals amplifying book pages until turning them into broad geographies in which the spectator feels he or she could get lost in. If maps and scale models normally have in order to control or conquer it, the microscopic gaze, also eager of knowledge, rather tends toward the vertigo of what is endless, to the detail invading all of our visual field and which we feel we could always increase in size, indefinitely, therefore making us feel minuscule, defenseless, vulnerable. The infinite of outer space, as Pascal knew, may be less terrifying than the infinite of what is negligible, of what is minuscule as a miniature universe in which we can get lost in, and which makes our certainty about us being the measure of all thing stagger.


IV. Insects, characters, indecisions

One of the microcosmoses in which Mónica Bengoa has submerged herself is the one pertaining to insects and flowers, which has been at the center of her production for the last ten years, among others, in thistle murals in some aspects of color in general and red and black in particular (2007), the works collected in the entre lo exhaustivo y lo inconcluso exhibition (in between what is thorough and what is unfinished, 2009), and the felt murals shown in Algunas consideraciones sobre los insectos y las flores silvestres (Some considerations on insects and wild flowers, 2012).

The insects with which Mónica Bengoa works with are not, as traditionally occurred in the history of painting, a detail of a greater scene destined to impress us with its high level of verisimilitude, for example making us believe that a real fly was perched on the painting’s canvas. They are neither moral allegories of what is fleeting about beauty, or the brevity of life, even if for some moments they would seem to tempt us to read in them a symbolic meaning. This happens to me particularly with the bees in the felt murals: How not to think about this insect’s connotations in mythology, in the copious literature praising its laboriousness, collective spirit and impressive discipline (or reviling them, as Marx did, who in a famous sentence opposes their automated labor with the conscious labor defining humans)? During the Renaissance, bees’ capacity of transforming pollen from diverse flowers into honey with the ability of the artist who takes his/her ideas from diverse sources but distills them a new and unique piece of work. All of these associations, and many other possible ones, are activated when contemplating the bees these images confront us with, but there is also something in them that resists a reading of this type: each of them is too singular, too literal and specific, as for it to be taken as a symbol, and the same occurs with the flowers Bengoa reproduces.

On the other hand, we must not forget that these are images of images, and that their peculiarity precisely derives from their effort to exactly reproduce, not the object they ostensibly take as a subject, but a photograph of that object, with the specific peculiarities of the medium. Paradoxically of this procedure thickens in the murals in which we observe a page of an open book, positioned in perspective in relation to the objective, confronting writing and image from side to side, with text legible only in parts due to the constraints of the depth of field. It is certainly not the first time Bengoa includes text in her work, but it is the first work that assigns it such prominence to their texture, to the shape of letters, that in these images challenge us to decipher them and at the same time allow us to do so only partially (without considering the fact that the texts of this exhibition are in German, a language incomprehensible to many of her spectators).

From the interpretation of these pages of a book on insects and flowers recovered from the author’s childhood the fascination with text as a graphic issue was born, I believe (since literature and books were always present in Bengoa’s universe of references). Her recent work has been dedicated toward thoroughly exploring the image of a seemingly arid object, of a relatively ascetic nature in opposition to the explosive sensuality of insect bodies and flower: frontally contemplated book pages (except for the distortion introduced by having crumpled them). Something persists, nonetheless, deeply tactile, corporeal, carnal even, in these works that could be wholly cerebral. The feeling is only partly due to the nature of felt with which some of them are executed with, since it persists in the fretwork paper pages: I suspect it is rather due to us sensing the demanding physical intensity and extreme delicacy of the process with which they are produced, and to which at some exhibitions a looped video allows us to lean out to. The body contemplating these works connects, then, through the medium that is the work, with the body working on reproducing it, with the rhythm of manual labor, and the finished product before which we stand invites us to imagine the series of processes through which it came to appear before us. It is also interesting how those videos re-stage the artist’s body, with the dynamism of the moving image, now with her hands instead of her face as undisputed protagonists.

Watching this video we realize that these works are not only an exercise in style, as Raymond Queneau’s text that serves as a pretext for a series of Bengoa’s works, in the sense that the subject is in them an excuse to explore procedures, techniques, resources. They are also body and spirit strengthening exercises, to remember the sentence by Agota Kristof that served her as a title for some of her early works, because of the sustained effort they demand, practically becoming part of the complex gesture they execute and recovering archaic dimensions of the practice of writing. According to Louis-Jean Calvet, the etymology of term to write in romance languages goes back to “the Latin scribere, “to trace characters”, which at the same time remits us to an Indo-European root, “*kerl/*sker”, indicative of the idea of “cutting”, “performing incisions” (…). Writing would therefore be, according to etymology, a kind of incision…”[8]

The act of leaving a mark, then, is connected with the gestures of scratching, scraping, strumming, slitting, all of them also connected with drawing (which in Greek was designated with the same term used for writing, graphô). On its part, the term “to leave a mark on”, or “make an impression on” (“calar” in Spanish), the dictionary informs us, may have the diverse meaning of “penetrating a permeable body”, “cutting a body from one part to the other”, “to pierce through matter in the shape of a sheet in order to produce a drawing similar to lace”, “cutting a fruit with the aim of tasting it”, “pulling a hat down firmly on the head”, “setting up a bayonet and inclining it forwards before attacking”, “knowing the qualities or intentions of something”, “understanding a motive or secret”, “introducing itself somewhere”, “using hands to steal out of a bag”, “soaking wet until the rainwater or other liquid gets to the body”, “for a bird to pounce on something to capture it”. All of this varied constellation of actions seems to me a good way of exploring the operations Bengoa’s art proposes, in its crossings conjugating the gaze, body, matter, the world and decanting them into spellbinding, delicate, seductive objects.

[1] Balázs, Béla. The Theory of the Film. London, Dennis Dobson (publisher), 1931, pg. 56.

[2] Borges, Jorge Luis. Obra poética (Selected Poetry).

[3] Todorov, Tvetan. Elogio de lo cotidiano (Praise of Everyday Life). Barcelona, Galaxia Gutemberg (publisher), 2013, pg. 10.

[4] Op. cit., pg. 100.

[5] Op. cit., pg. 97.

[6] Perec, Georges. Lo infraordinario (The Infra-Ordinary). Buenos Aires, Eterna Cadencia (publisher), 2013, pg. 14.

[7] Lévi-Strauss, Claude. El pensamiento salvaje (The Savage Mind). Bogotá, Fondo de Cultura Ecoomica (publisher), 1997, pg. 45.

[8] Calvet, Louise-Jean. Historia de la escritura. De Mesopotamia hasta nuestros días (History of Writing: From Mesopotamia to the Present Days). Barcelona, Paidós (publisher), 2007, pg. 31.

related exhibitions

Attempt at an Inventory

06 December - 13 May 2018

Retrospective exhibition at Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes, MNBA.

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