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The grid and its limits: enormous minuscule maps of an immense subtlety


The grid and it’s limits: enormous minuscule maps of an immense subtlety . Fernando Pérez Villalón, in Solo exhibition catalogue between the exhaustive and the inconclusive. p.37-39. Santiago, Chile. 2009


To travel the world, by land and sea, from pole to pole; to interrogate life, in all climates, in the endless variety of its manifestations, that is certainly a glorious opportunity for those who have eyes to see; that was the magnificent dream of my youthful years, when I delighted in Robinson Crusoe. The rosy fantasies, rich in travels, were soon succeeded by the dull domestic realities. The jungles of India, the virgin rainforests of Brazil, the high Andes peaks, worshipped by the condor, were reduced, as a field for exploration, to a box of pebbles enclosed within four walls. (…) I walk this cloister over and over again, a hundred times, in short stretches; I stop here and there, patiently ask questions, and, every other time, receive a shred of an answer.

” J. Henri Fabre, Souvenirs entomologiques”

Against a background in which blue alternates with red and green, sprinkled with golden dots arranged in groups of three, a weft of branches of the same background color rise, which, entwining into a tangle, entirely cover the square space with golden rims. Each branch culminates in a group of three leaves (or are they petals?), or in the wreath of a flower with its chalice pointing inwards to the painted surface. Of the same color as the rims of the painting, covering almost all of its extension, a capital R intermingles its three strokes (the vertical line, the curved line, and the descending diagonal, almost blending into the lower right corner of the square) with the branches. Within the space marked by its semicircular upper half, a relatively realistic scene can be seen. Its depth contrasts with the decorative, arabesque-like quality of the foliage. It includes a tree parallel to the vertical line of the R, whose branches and leaves stretch towards its curved line. Next to the tree, a serpentine road sets off toward a mountain, and a little past the tree, two silo-like structures rise, with white walls and a brown conical rooftop (one doesn’t know whether they are made of straw, tiles or wood). Posed on those cylinders, the dark figures of a sort of eight legged ants with two pairs of elongated antennas can be seen, apart from some winged insects also perched on the tree trunk, resembling bees, or wasps. A group of specimens of a third kind, maybe cockroaches, occupies the grass-covered space left between a fallen tree trunk and the background blue, which seems to be a river in relation to this landscape. Outside the golden square containing these images, a text can be made out, with its first word written in capital letters, arranged next to the upper right corner of the square, RESTAT (the r, its first letter, some fifteen times larger than the others).

It is not hard to guess that this is not one of the images produced by Mónica Bengoa for this exhibition, but of a page from a medieval manuscript, at whose photographic reproduction I am looking as I start writing this text, after having scanned it from a library book that reproduces the most notable illustrations of a 15th century Italian edition of Pliny the Elder’s Natural History[1].

The word “restat” is an erroneous transcription of the first sentence of its eleventh volume, devoted to insects and body parts: “Animals of an infinitely delicate study are still (to be treated) –“Restant inmensae subtilitatis animalia…”– since certain authors have maintained that these animals do not breathe, and even lack of blood.”[2] Pliny then explains why the name “insect” is used (insectum is his translation of the Greek entomon, hence “entomology”) for those “utterly subtle” animals: “they have been denominated this way due to the incisions that, on the neck, thorax or abdomen, divide their body parts into segments which are joined but by a narrow channel. (…) With no other animal –Pliny proceeds- does nature’s resourcefulness (naturae rerum artificio) stand out as much.” The word itself refers to those incisions or sections in the bodies of these minuscule animals, whose name originates from the verb secare (to cut, split, decide).

Why take this detour to start referring to this group of drawings by Mónica Bengoa, brought together as “Between Exhaustiveness and Incompleteness”? Partly, because it seems to me that this digression tangentially touches many of the problems proposed by her work: the relation between words and things, certainly, but also between language and visual images, the scale of representation in relation to our body and the structures on which it is displayed, the problem of the classification of objects, and the remains that resist entering a system, preventing the definitive closure of any encyclopedia. This illustration also manifests the proximity between the strokes with which insects are represented, and the ones with which the bodies of the letters speaking of them are assembled, an uncanny resemblance often mentioned when speaking of the origin of writing, the practice of calligraphy, or the simple contemplation of printed signs on a page[3]. Bengoa’s figures at times seem to me like the sketch of a to us incomprehensible alphabet, or the ruins of a hieroglyphic language without a Rosetta stone to decipher it, the illustrations of a treaty whose text has been lost, and which therefore cannot be organized according to any plot or portrait.

Finally, there is another reason to start off with a detour: Bengoa’s drawings frequently structure themselves in that gesture, of circumscribing, the same as an encyclopedia (literally, something like a circular education, in the sense of spanning everything): a great part of her strokes, printed or pencil drawn, delimit a zone, a territory. Maybe this is why these images, seen from up-close, have an element of cartography, of maps, drawings of an unknown continent, whose size we cannot know (it may have the boundless world scale of Henri Fabre’s infantile fantasy, or of the narrow cloister to which he has been confined to in his advanced age). On one hand, that circumscribing, defining, deciding, and on the other, the transference, the transit from the world to the page or screen, to a surface, knowing that its outlines will ultimately exceed it (as with the figures Bengoa draws here, never seen full-length, but fragmented and foreshortened). Borges imagined a perfect map whose size would coincide with that of the territory it equaled to: exacerbating that gesture, we could imagine Bengoa proposing maps that far exceed the scale of what they draw, amplifying and blowing it up to the point when it becomes almost unrecognizable.

What do the circumspection, that involving gesture, and the amplification that makes it possible mean? As Marianne Moore writes in a poem about the circle of people that forms around a stiff-winged grasshopper (“We stood like the snake swallowing its tail, comprising a ring”), every circle is a symbol[4]. But like Moore’s poem, enigmatic in its conciseness, Bengoa’s drawings resist any easy reading, any swift deciphering (like Fabre’s garden insects, which only very occasionally answer his questions). But they also resist the complete enclosure of the ouroboros, the snake biting its own tail, frequently symbolizing perfection, but also cyclical time and self-reflection. Bengoa’s work as a whole, in fact, seems to belong to a moment in local and international art that, knowing full well that any image is nothing but a group of lines or colors on a plane (as Greenberg famously stated, referring to abstract expressionism), nonetheless returns to the representation of what is real, not so much with a fascination for the illusionism erasing the lines in favor of the referent (looking at that which is painted or drawn beforehand, and instead of seeing that it is painted or drawn), but rather obsessively examining the processes through which that transference of three-dimensionality to the plane can occur and the many modalities a form can acquire once transposed.

In Bengoa’s work, as is the case with many others, drawing is mediated by photography, a medium that captures what is real with the same supposed objectivity of the eyes, but with a technical capacity which far exceeds theirs, and which allows for the disproportion Bengoa’s drawings play with. This disproportion, the immense size she confers to what is minuscule (inmensae subtilitatis animalia) has not little in common with the scenes of so many movies in which an insect turns into a giant monster, or a human being is reduced to minuscule dimensions. The literary antecedents of those fantasies, such as Gulliver’s Travels or Micromegas, imagine this mutation of scale approximately in the same period in which science was exploring the possibility of benefiting from the advances in the manufacture of optical lenses to observe minuscule and immense objects, by means of the microscope and the telescope. Emanuele Tesauro had already compared metaphors to the Galilean telescope, in its approximation of what is distant to generate the meraviglia, but the 18th century proposes an irreversible mutation going from representation to classification, like the 17th century had gone from resemblance to representation: Linneus begins his university studies the same year in which Swift publishes the Travels[5]. If the fascination of the Baroque period with the possibilities of using an image projected in a camera obscura for the tracing of figures (an operation not that far removed from the one Bengoa executes), is, in a way, part of the same enquiry on the nature of optics that allows Swift to imagine confrontations with Lilliputians and giants with an unprecedented level of detail, the research that ends up fixing the projected image to a surface is related with the adventures of that descendant of Gulliver, Alice, who not only changes size during the narration, but also holds a lengthy conversation with a caterpillar[6].

But let us return to Bengoa: there is another reticence in her drawings that seems to distinguish them from all of her previous work (and which can also be read as a process of reduction to the essentials): I am referring to the abandonment of color, which, in the earlier works I know, combined the rigor of the grid with the seductions of amazement, the makeup of a “colorful deceit” (to quote Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz). Nothing remains of color here but its secret cipher, the number identifying it in a series that, again, we have no way of deciphering. This indicates the extent to which in this work the process is shown in a state previous to what in other works was the final stage. This work remains in a larval stage, depriving itself of the luxury of the metamorphosis into a butterfly (even though, on the other hand, what is outlined are areas of color and not anatomical outlines). But a larva is not only an embryo, but also a mask (let us remember Descartes’ motto, j’avance masqué, larvatus prodeo): I wonder to what extent the bodies of these insects are not a variation of the subtle portraits Bengoa has explored earlier. There is then a strong element of play, riddle or labyrinth, of metamorphosis and disguise in this work. But there is also a considerable amount of melancholy in these images of insects trapped, not in the mesh of a net, but in the digital grid of a screen connected to the virtual web (a subtler version of Fabre’s closed garden), turned into mere dissegno, into a naked idea, an undecorated invention[7].

Descartes’ sentence, proposed as a slogan for the philosopher (who, disguised, as a precaution against censorship, unmasks false knowledge), also proposes the disguise as a necessary component of his own theatricality (“like a masked actor, I advance in the theater of the world” the complete sentence reads), even though Descartes’ work is usually regarded as part of an intellectual movement away from the idea of the world as a stage, as theater, or as a book being represented before our eyes, a spectacle intelligible to the naked eye for whoever understands its language. The same metaphor of the theater of the world is the one serving as title to the third volume of the History of Four Footed Beasts and Serpents and Insects by Thomas Muffet, posthumously printed in 1658 as Theater of Insects or Lesser Living Creatures. Like with Pliny (who he often paraphrases), Muffet’s title suggests the insignificance of his topic to later negate it: less is more. If Pliny had written that “with no other animal but insects does nature’s enormous resourcefulness stands out as much (naturae rerum artificio)”, adding that “nature is never as whole as in these little creatures (rerum natura nusquam magis quam in minimis tota sit), the introduction to Muffet’s treaty adds that “for in great bodies the workmanship is easie, the matter being ductile; but in these that are so small and despicable, and almost nothing, what care?”[8] The same could be said of these works, refusing grandiloquence and ornament, preferring the immense subtlety of these minimal animals, displayed either in windows marked with the trace of the grid within which its figures are inscribed, or in the wider display of an adhesive support on which the traits of their bodies are traced as cuts, dissected in delimiting strokes that can never exhaust them.

But it would be self-deceiving to think that the insects Bengoa watches and draws are the same ones Pliny or Muffet observed: as much as we carefully look, these insects do not speak to us, they do not respond, they transmit neither moral virtues nor secret symbolisms. As opposed to the Gold-bug in Poe’s renowned story, they are not clues to a treasure, or their numbers the cipher of a message to be understood. It would be wrong (at least at this point) to try to strip Bengoa’s images of their mask in order to reveal their real face, which is here as much on the surface as in the overt self-portraits she has previously produced. These images are perhaps rather an invitation to exercise the semiotics of the sphinx Agamben speaks of in his Stanzas, to find, between exhaustiveness and incompleteness, not the exit of the labyrinth these bodies generate, but the dance in which their lines originate and of which they remain as a mute testimony.

Fernando Pérez Villalón. New York, January 2009

[1] Pliny the Elder, Historia Naturalis. Joyce Whalley publishers, London, Victoria and Albert Museum, 1982.

[2] I translate assisted by the bilingual version into French by A. Ernout (Pline l’ancien, Historie naturelle, vol. 11, Paris: Les Belles Lettres, 1947), from where I also took the text in Latin.

[3] I am thinking of Michaux’s unintelligible “scrawls,” barely distinguishable from his imaginary entomology by their unrecognizable nature, or of Enrique Lihn’s comment on the ant-like look of the letters in a page (“We, in contrast, are condemned to writing / and to suffer the sloth of this crawling of ants implies…” in “Art of Jugglery”), and certainly also of Francisco Leal’s Insects, and the chiaroscuro of the fly in the poem by Macarena Urzúa serving as epigraph to that book.

[4] “A ring is the most extreme form/of symbol/rings mar/the symmetry of loyal regard: we philosophized/and said we could not have been events in anyone’s ring/had it not been inevitable in the case of this thing.” (To a Stiff-winged Grasshopper, The poems of Marianne Moore, Grace Shulman publishers, NY, Penguin Books, 2005)

[5] I very approximately paraphrase Foucault’s thesis in The Order of Things.

[6] The author of Alice in Wonderland is not only one of the pioneers of photography, author of images resonating with some of Bengoa’s earlier works, but also inventor of the “Nyctograph”, a device that allowed taking notes in the dark, consisting of a letter divided by a weft of sixteen squares and a system of symbols to represent the alphabet.

[7] It could be said, in terms taken from Alberti’s De Pictura, that Bengoa limits herself to the circumscription and composition of figures in these works, without the “reception of light”. The first two components of pictorial art can equal themselves to the rhetoric inventio y dispositio, while color equals the elocutio, the process of ornatus, decoration. It is that later moment Bengoa suppresses in these works.

[8] From the introduction by Willy Ley, Muffet, T., The History of Four-Footed Beasts and Serpents and Insects, vol. 3, The Theater of Insects (Da Capo Press, NY, 1967).

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