Book Publishing: “Elisa Bertaglia: Hic Sunt Dracones”

An official book presentation will be announced soon.

From the catalogue essay:

“Certainly for all artists of all stripes, the unknown, the idea or the form or the tale that has not yet arrived is what must be found. It is the job of the artists to open doors and invite in prophesies, the unknown, the unfamiliar. It is where their work comes from. Although, its arrival signals the beginning of the long disciplined process of making it their own,” writes Rebecca Solnit, best describing the artist’s relationship to the unknown in A Field Guide to Getting Lost.   

Getting lost can have many different meanings; the one we are most interested in, in this context, is definitely the one that can be considered the abandonment of the known for the unknown—the courage to approach a Terra Incognita, a term used in cartography for regions that have not been mapped or documented through exploration.

The science of cartography and Bertaglia’s art have a lot in common. Both map a certain territory to those who haven’t been there yet, to those curious about a place and a space that they might approach but first want to learn about beforehand, comfortably from home. Both deal with knowledge—knowledge of the known and knowledge of the unknown. Both deal with places and landscapes and territories and, ultimately, maps of all of these three. If you think about it for a moment, places are more than geographic coordinates. Places are deities of memories; they reflect events and happenings in a person’s life, hence becoming a map not only of their movement but also of their emotions. Interestingly, the words movement and emotion have a lot in common. Emotion derives from the Latin movere: move out, remove, agitate. The discovery of the unknown and the exploration of territories nobody has been to (yet) are practices that deal much more with these instinctive states of mind (emotions) than with geographical advancement. This aspect is significant in Bertaglia’s art. Her painting practice doesn’t aim to produce beautiful objects but to create a recreational, moving microcosmos.

An urban legend claims that cartographers labelled such unknown territories with the term hic sunt dracones (“here there be dragons”), in imitation of a medieval practice of putting illustrations of dragons, sea monsters, and other mythological creatures on uncharted areas of maps where potential dangers were thought to exist. Indeed, those adventurers imagined the uttermost beings, worse than those of the furthest thresholds explored on our planet Earth. Even if nobody had ever been “on the other side,” their description was sci-fi like. We could say that those adventurers were the first artists sourcing their subjects from their own deep fears and emotions. The title hic sunt dracones, even if used only once, apparently, to describe the east coast of Asia, quickly assumed a collective understanding of seemingly dangerous places that nobody has actually ever seen. Imagination had filled the traveler’s geographical unsuccess. “But these Terra Incognita spaces on maps say that knowledge is also an island surrounded by oceans of the unknown. They signify that the cartographers knew they did not know and awareness of ignorance is not just ignorance it is awareness of knowledge’s limits,” continues Solnit. Jorge Luis Borges, in On Exactitude in Science, wrote a parable about some cartographers who eventually created a map on a 1:1 scale that covered much of a nameless empire, only to realize that it was impossible to use it, hence totally useless. A map conveys the essential division between reality and representation, where the gap is filled by the reader’s imagination. A map too exact would become the thing it maps, endangering both, killing fantasy and imagination. Precise maps and the need for the unknown, the space for imagination, are inseparable.

And here is where all the elements tie together and start to confer their true identity to Bertaglia’s new series of paintings. Her consistent and obsessive research into how to represent a threshold, and be neither academic, didactic, nor illustrative, finds an answer in the ancient art of cartographers, Asian art and philosophies, and subsequently the consideration of the unknown and unseen (the void).