For the ancient Chinese, the world coincided with our thinking about the world, not with our naming it. “All that we are is the result of our thoughts,” proclaimed the Buddhist master Hui-neng. In the Judeo-Christian realm, instead, the world coincides with the word, an interlocking metaphor that, though its sources are Mesopotamian, was fixed by Jewish poets around the sixth century BC.
Why word instead of thought? Unlike the Chinese, the ancient Jews lacked (for the most part) a vocabulary to express abstract ideas, and often preferred to use concrete nouns as metaphors for those ideas, rather than inventing new words for new concepts, thereby lending these nouns a moral and spiritual meaning. Thus, for the complex idea of living consciously in the world and attempting to draw from the world a meaning, they borrowed the image of the volume that held God’s word, the Bible or “the Books.” And for the bewildering realisation of being alive, they chose the image of the travelled road. Both metaphors –book as world and road as life-- have the advantage of great simplicity and popular awareness, and the passage from image to idea (or, as my old schoolbook would say, from the vehicle to the tenor ) can be smoothly and naturally effected in the mind of the public. To live then, is to travel through the book of the world, and to read words or images is to live, to follow a path through the world itself. “Make note of the vision,” says God to the prophet Habakkuk, “and make it plain upon tablets, that he may run who reads it.”
Pages, landscapes, paths fill Tello’s work. But though Tello “makes note of the vision,” it is not as scribe to a divine order, nor as instrument of her instrument. Rather, she seems to follow the injunction offered in the eleventh century by the Chinese painter Kuo Hsi:
“The artist must be master and not slave of the brush. He must be master and not slave of the ink. Ink and brush are trivial things, but if an artist does not use them freely, how can he be expected to reach the peak of his virtuosity? Complete mastery is not difficult to obtain. To give a well-known example, we find a fitting analogy in calligraphy. It has been said that Wang Hsi-chih was fond of geese because he loved the graceful movement of their necks, for they reminded him of the movements of an artist with his brush, who, using his arm perfectly writes letters and characters.”
That freedom, that dexterity, that grace is obvious in Tello’s paintings. Resigned then to an untranslatable visual narrative, the viewer-reader is drawn forward in her work by an irresistible sense of movement that inscribes her work in an aesthetic very much at odds with contemporary conceptualism. In certain imagistic cultures (such as the Chinese or the Islamic), the metaphor of the world as book is overlaid by that of life as reading, the act of living associated to that of moving through the world or the page in search of the ultimately unattainable meaning. Thus, in the twelfth-century, the Arab traveller Ibn al-Arabi wrote: “The origin of existence is movement. Immobility can have no part in it, for if existence was immobile it would return to its source, which is the Void. That is why the voyaging never stops, in this world or in the hereafter.”
In this sense, we, viewers of Tello’s paintings, move from canvas to canvas like resigned adventurers for whom the practical experience of crossing space and time is charged both with the bewilderment at the speed of the evolving strokes and with the frustration of waiting for meaning; and also like traditional art lovers who seek in the work mirrors of our own intellectual and affective experience. We are filled with a sense of transition, of passing, tinged with a willingness to be surprised, comforted and challenged. We have been here before, we say, but “here” is no longer the same. Tello has transformed it. We cannot stand still. The place is now enchanted.
© 2013, Alienor.org, Conseil des musées