It has been nearly a week since I visited the Alighiero Boetti exhibition at Tate Modern. Generally, I like to write about exhibitions as soon as possible but, for this, I needed time to digest. I felt thoroughly bamboozled by parts of the show. To be honest, I still do.
Boetti is one of the most influential Italian artists of the 20th century, strongly associated with the Arte Povera movement of the late 1960s (which he then rejected in 1969 with his work Niente da vedere niente da nascondere). The exhibition begins with his Arte Povera objects at a time when he was experimenting with the figure and identity of the artist. Taking this to extremes, Boetti began to represent himself as split in two, as twins called Alighiero E Boetti.
In the background – Alighiero Boetti, Niente da vedere niente da nascondere, 1969. Own photograph.
The exhibition highlights Boetti’s engagement with travel, geopolitics, games, numbers, words, dates, sequences, systems… with far too many things in fact. It is very hard to tie Boetti down; throughout his career, he always jumped around, never remaining in one place for long and, for this reason, after the second room there is no route around the exhibition. Instead, it is structured by ideas rather than arranged chronologically. Game Plan is playful and conceptual, aiming to be the exact manifestation of the artist himself.
Game Plan at Tate Modern. Own photograph.
Boetti is most widely-known for his maps where each country is created using the colours and symbols of its flag. From June 1967, not having any interest in learning the skill himself, Boetti asked his wife to embroider the shapes for him. When travelling, he commissioned local craftswomen as he was intrigued by the female approach to colour. At one point, supposedly, the embroiderers did not recognise the ocean as an ocean and used a colour that was more plentiful in their supplies. After this time he gave them leeway to choose the colours they preferred for the seas; the values of the locals are woven into the pictures along with the artist’s ideas. Boetti was fascinated by systems of which maps are the very embodiment, the human method of representing the world through shapes and symbolic colours. At the heart of this exhibition are 12 maps embroidered in his characteristic, vivid colours. This room is certainly the highlight of the exhibition and one where we most coherently get a sense of Boetti’s personality and ideals.
Alighiero Boetti, Mappa, 1971-72. Own photograph.
There are other well-known highlights; his 1973 work ordine e disordine covers a whole wall with a hundred embroidered squares featuring the randomly-dispersed phrase. Also included are his monumental embroideries and a book created in an attempt to classify the thousand longest rivers in the world. Shown in a room with windows, through which it’s possible to see the Thames, the hangings take a vivid actuality with their sense of movement and research mirrored by the flowing fluvial contours outside.
Alighiero Boetti,Ordine e Disordine, 1973. Own photograph.
I found his postal works particularly interesting; in 1969, Boetti selected 25 characters to be part of his Viaggi Postali. He created 25 different journeys. The first envelopes were sent to the first addresses but were obviously returned to sender as the addressee didn’t live there. Boetti photocopied both sides of the envelope and filed the copies in grey folders. The original envelopes were then placed in larger envelopes and sent to the second address. And so the same thing would continue as part of Boetti’s own strange game. 19 envelopes remain in the final work, the others having got lost on their travels.
Alighiero Boetti,Viaggi Postali, 1969-70. Own photograph.
And then there’s the work generating most attention – his Lampada Annuale, a black box holding a single light bulb that only illuminates for 11 seconds a year. Few people will ever see it alight but there will always be a great sense of expectation when approaching it. But, Boetti will always have the last laugh; no doubt the work will illuminate one night, enjoying its 11-second glory in solitude.
In the foreground – Alighiero Boetti, Lampada Annuale, 1966. Own photograph.
Game Plan is another exhibition that Tate has dimly lit, making it gloomy and exhausting. It is highly likely that the tapestries dictate these low light levels but the curatorial decisions have removed any playfulness from the exhibition. Tate has done nothing to jazz this show up. I’d only seen a few of Boetti’s works before but the sheer diversity is incredible. However, if you don’t know anything about the artist, Tate’s choice of labelling and explanations is strange. I found the catalogue to be far more palatable than the show and it is through this that I’ve been able to understand some of the more baffling elements in greater detail. It clearly elucidates Boetti’s multi-faceted career in a non-exhausting way.
Alighiero Boetti,detail of I mille fiumi più lunghi del mondo, 1976-78. Own photograph.
Even on a preview morning, as people ‘accidentally’ stepped over the boundary lines, a ridiculous symphony of beeps deafened everyone in the gallery. The alarms were like a sound installation which I imagine will get tiresome.
Some of Boetti’s works are a revelation and his use of texture throughout is amazing but overall it’s not for me. The volume of work at Tate shows how active Boetti was. Although, he made very few of the pieces himself, he saw thought as a sixth sense and was constantly bubbling with ideas. There may be no continuity in his medium but Tate aims to show that his principles are consistent and that his eccentricity was omnipresent.
Alighiero Boetti: Game Plan is at Tate Modern until 27th May 2012, www.tate.org.uk.