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 Monique Tello
Chemins primitifs

... The cartographical writing of Monique Tello

Alberto Manguel - last page


For Dante's contemporaries, the image of the reader or viewer as traveller carried, by and large, an active and positive connotation. Reading words or gazing at images was a beneficial labour, if directed towards the right goal and performed in the right spirit, allowing the intellect to understand what the spirit intuited through love. All human beings were meant to be travellers (which is perhaps why, in the Biblical tradition, God preferred the offerings of the nomadic herdsman Abel to those of the sedentary crop holder Cain, and punished Cain, after his crime, by forcing him to become a wanderer himself). But there were many shades to this interpretation. The reader who committed himself to the exploration of a text or an image had the qualities of an explorer, an intrepid seafarer who could either, like Jason, pursue a worthy cause and bring back home the Golden Fleece, or who, like the Commedia's Ulysses, pursue a merely reckless goal in a "mad flight" from which there is no return. Travel could also be a punishment, as in the case of the Wandering Jew who, in the medieval legend, is condemned to wander the earth until the Second Coming, for having denied Christ rest when He was carrying the Cross past the Jew's doorstep. Thus the reader-travellers could be either rewarded for their efforts or punished for their gall. For Dante's contemporaries, travel mirrored precisely the essential act of living, of unknown duration, perilous and many times bitter, fraught with deadly temptations. "I am a stranger on earth, a passerby, like all my ancestors, an exile, an uneasy traveller in this brief life," wrote Petrarch in one of his letters, barely half a century after Dante's journey. The traveller through Tello's work repeats Petrarch's epiphany.

We, however, Tello’s contemporaries, no longer carry a constant sense of transience within us, at least not in the essential way in which Petrarch and Dante felt it. Everything in our societies today incites us to believe that we are quasi-immortal beings, preserved in an eternal present, and that all our activities (reading included) must be conclusive in an absolute sense. We trust only certainties. Change for us is not a leap from one moment to another on which the previous moments cast no shadow. Such persistent instantaneity convinces us that we exist only here and now, in whatever circle we happen to find ourselves, with no sense of debt to the past or overlapping of experience, except as conceited outposts of progress. It creates for us the illusion of a constant present, seized in the emblem of the flickering screen always open before us, suggesting that, since we have entrusted our memory to a machine, we can disregard the past in all its manifestations (libraries, archives, the recollection of our elders, our own ability to recall) and so dismiss the consequences of our actions. If today reading or seeing images is a form of travel, it is only in the sense of passing timelessly from place to place, ignoring differences of latitude and longitude, pretending that everything occurs for us and under our gaze, and that we can always be informed of all that happens, wherever we might find ourselves. Cees Nooteboom has remarked that “anyone who is constantly travelling is always somewhere else, and therefore always absent,” and quotes disapprovingly Pascal’s dictum, that “the root of the world’s misfortune lies in the fact that human beings are unable to remain in one room for twenty-four hours.” Tello seems to agree with Nooteboom’s dictum and proposes the viewer an ongoing displacement, a constant alternative to being rooted in the present. We are not allowed resignation.

We advance through Tello’s paintings as we advance through the world, passing from the first to the last image through the unfolding landscape, sometimes starting in the middle, sometimes not reaching the end. The intellectual experience of travelling through the paintings becomes a physical experience, calling into action the entire body. The images to come promise a point of arrival, a glimmer on the horizon; those already seen allow for the possibility of recollection. And in the present of the image in front of us we exist suspended in a constantly changing moment, an island of time shimmering between what we know of the colours and forms, and what lies yet ahead. Every viewer of a Tello painting is an armchair traveller.


For our ancestors, as we have said, reading words or pictures was a way of reading the world and served the purpose of helping them along the road of revelation, pricking their curiosity and their conscience. They also knew that at a certain point the usefulness of our task had to stop, because, as occurs in any text or painting we call great, the ultimate understanding must always escape us. This promise of something that lies in the future but will never be utterly achieved is the gift Tello offers her grateful viewers.



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