If art is to be considered playful, experimental, and a way of making and breaking rules, then the prolific works of Alighiero Boetti (1940-1994) can certainly be seen to epitomise these concepts. Fascinated with numbers, words, dates, sequences, magic, coincidences and games, Boetti began producing sculptures in the late 1960s, and, initially, was caught up in the Arte Povera movement, before turning to mock this and produce his own manifesto (1967). Many of the principles remained consistent, however, and he held a firm belief in the motto “mettere al mondo il mondo”, which translates both as “bringing the world into the world” and “giving birth to the world”, the title of one of his biro works from the 1970s, but also reflecting his attitude that artists oughtn’t necessarily invent new things, but rather work with what the world already has to offer. Tate Modern’s current retrospective, Game Plan, leads you on an exciting and unpredictable tour through some of Boetti’s serendipitous creations of ordered disorder (or should that be disordered order?), traversing the world, to Afghanistan and back, with no two visitors taking the same route. Works are not arranged chronologically, but, rather, thematically, and no one path is prescribed, allowing as much of an element of chance into the exhibition as into the production itself.
Boetti was a keen traveller who visited Guatemala, Ethiopia, Morocco, Japan, and, most importantly, Afghanistan, where he set up the One Hotel and later employed a band of (well paid) workers. During his travels, he began a series of works involving the postal service, including La Mole Antonelliana ¬(1970-1975), for which he sent postcards of Turin back to Turin from seven cities around the world. Another postal work, Viaggi Postali (Postal Voyages) (1969-1970), involved his sending of envelopes to false addresses, including, for example, to dead artists such as Marcel Duchamp. These were, in due course, returned to him, photocopied, placed inside a larger envelope, and resent. In this way, a work was built up, comprising many layers and journeys, as well as the input of external “artists”, in this case the postal workers, who would apply their stamps at random.
Whilst Boetti often employed others to (co-)produce his works, enjoying the added layers of their input, Serie di merli dispositi a intervalli regolari lungo gli spalti di una muraglia (A Row of Merlons Set at Regular Intervals Along the Ramparts of a Wall) (1971-1973) remains a personal work, documenting the artist’s own life. It consists of a series of framed telegrams, sent at intervals which double in length from one to the next. Boetti had predicted the date of his death to be due to fall on 11 July 2023 (something also denoted in earlier plaques and embroideries), and thus he left space in the frame for the telegrams still to come. Unfortunately, however, his calculation was incorrect, and he died unexpectedly early in 1994, leaving one poignant gap for the telegram due in 2016, which, now, will never be sent.
Boetti’s interest in travel also extended to the production of a series of geopolitical world maps, Mappa, between 1971-1994. Spanning this critical period, the embroideries provide an interesting documentation of the changing political borders during the Cold War, charting the progressive break-up of the USSR. Although varying in scale and angle from map to map, the countries are, where possible, coloured according to their flags. There is a story of chance associated with even these, however, since, in 1979, Boetti received a finished map, sent back from his workers in Afghanistan, on which the ocean was a beautiful baby pink. Supposedly this was due to his landlocked embroiderers not knowing what an ocean was, or how it should be coloured, and thus simply choosing an easily available colour for this large expanse. Boetti was, however, so pleased with this intervention of happenstance, that he never again dictated the colour for the ocean, and remained proud of how little he determined the look of the finished works. Similarly, with his biro drawings, each sheet in a multi-part work would be created by someone different on his behalf, and, although the identity of each remains unknown, the different personalities shine through in the various mark makings. These scribbled works also seem to have the depth and texture of embroidery, and, as with many of his works, contain layers of hidden messages, encoded through the use of large white commas relating back to the alphabet down the side of the sheet.
As well as hiding messages and using codes, Boetti was intrigued with systems of classification, and, in the late 1970s, he collaborated with his wife, Annemarie Sauzeau, to produce a book and two large-scale embroideries, listing the thousand longest rivers in the world (Classifying: The Thousand Longest Rivers in the World, 1977). As Sauzeau stated, however, “[classifications] will always be provisional and illusory,” especially, it would seem, where water and tides are involved. Boetti, of course, enjoyed this element of unpredictability, and elsewhere invokes classifications solely in order to abuse them. So, for example, he adds anomalous pictures of a motorcycle and a stone amongst the animals in his drawing Regno animale (Animal Kingdom) (1978).
This game of rules and exceptions, and order and disorder, is a key element in all of Boetti’s work. In fact, one piece even bears the title Ordine e Disordine (Order and Disorder) (1973), and consists of 100 embroidered panels, arranged at random on a wall, each spelling out their titular words. Evoking the same notion, but this time using images, the series Aerei (Aeroplanes) (1978; 1984; 1989) shows the artist’s ongoing attraction to multiplicity, with an overloading of machines in the sky, overlapping and interweaving, intruding on one another’s space, but not crashing.
Maximum saturation of the canvas is also achieved in the later series Tutto (Everything) (1989; 1992-1993; 1994), where Boetti has traced the outlines of images from magazines and newspapers, and then had them embroidered in myriad bright colours, like a nursery rug, but with no two areas of the same shade touching one another, and in the jigsaws he had made from earlier series of works, to be given to children on Austrian Airlines, including Faccine (Little Faces) (1979), for which he created a hexagonal grid and asked the children to fill in the faces in felt tips of their choice. This, it would seem, is the artist taking a full circle from his own early child’s play sculptures, where he stacked and packed objects such as paper doilies (Colonna, 1968), to a stage whereby he offers up an idea and allows children to play for themselves.
The exhibition closes with a work set apart from the rest, outside on the balcony. Boetti’s first sculpture using cast bronze, this Autoritratto (Self-Portrait) (1993-1996), showing the artist standing fully clad under a hosepipe, offers an ambivalent interpretation. In one way, it may seem humbling and meek, but, with a cleverly concealed heating mechanism underneath the artist’s scalp, which makes the water from the hose evaporate on contact and disappear in a cloud of steam, it might also be suggestive of a man with such an overload of ideas, that he needs to cool himself down. Either way, as the exhibition’s curator, Mark Godfrey, says: “[there is a] stream of ideas now heading out into London which is hopefully going to touch a lot of people over the next few months.” The invitation to join in and play is there for the taking.
Words by Anna McNay
Alighiero Boetti: Game Plan is at Tate Modern from Tuesday 28 February – Sunday 27 May 2012 Admission £10.00 ( £8.50 concessions)
Aerei 1989 1989
Courtesy of Carmignac Gestion Foundation © Aligherio Boetti, DACS 2011