Alighiero Boetti, Tate Modern, review

imageA rewarding new show at the Tate Modern reveals that conceptual artist Alighiero Boetti took as his subject the very foundations of reality, says Richard Dorment .

The Italian conceptual artist Alighiero Boetti didn’t do things by halves. Fixating on an idea, he followed it through to its logical conclusion — no matter where it might lead, how long it took to get there, or how absurd the conclusion turned out to be. And ideas just poured out of Boetti. In a life-size bronze self-portrait made at the end of his life, the artist stands under a cascade of water as though trying to cool down a brain literally steaming with them.

Born in Turin in 1940, Boetti initially became associated with Arte Povera, the use of worthless materials to make artefacts that challenged the commercialism of Pop art. Though the first gallery of Tate Modern’s comprehensive survey of Boetti’s career is filled with sculptural constructions made of sticks, cardboard and cheap fabric, he soon rejected this object-based aesthetic to work with what he saw as the foundations on which reality is built: language, numbers, measurement and time. Rather than make sculptures out of already existing materials, he saw art as a means of thinking in new ways about the world and our place in it.

In 1971, on his first visit to Afghanistan, Boetti created an artwork consisting of two separate pieces of embroidered fabric, on each of which is a date. The first, “16 December 2040”, is the 100th anniversary of the artist’s birth; the second, “11 July 2023” is the day, month, and year of his own predicted death.

What I find so remarkable about this unprepossessing work of art is that no one looking at it in 1971 could have fully understood it. Only after decades did it become apparent that it is Boetti’s meditation on time, chance and destiny. Let the artist explain this in his own words: ”If you write ‘1970’ on a wall’,” he said, ”it looks like nothing, nothing at all, but in 30 years’ time – well, every day that goes by, this date becomes more beautiful. It’s time that works – it’s all that works.”

But for Boetti, there are different kinds of time, as he makes clear by dividing the work into two parts. On the left is the time span by which we measure the immortality of historical figures (including, he jokes, Boetti himself) and on the right the mortal time frame that ends in death. We count the first in centuries and millenniums, the second in decades. And finally, back in 1971 no one – least of all the 31-year-old artist – could have foreseen the role chance or destiny would play in completing the work’s meaning. He imagined he’d live to the ripe old age of 83, but he died too early, aged 53.

I realise I’m making Boetti sound heavy going, but often his work is light-hearted, and will take the form of an elaborate game or linguistic puzzle. For instance, a two-part diptych he made in 1966 consists of two words spelt out in red neon letters: the one on the left says “Ping” the one on the right “Pong”. When Ping lights up, Pong goes off and vice versa back-and-forth, on-and-off with deadening, hypnotic monotony.

Just as you say to yourself that art doesn’t get any dumber, the piece starts to look not so dumb at all. First, Ping Pong is a very rare example of two words used to mean one thing. Second, the word is alliteratively unalterable. Whether you say it in Chinese, English or Italian it is pronounced “ping pong”. Next, the split-second illumination of each neon word mimics the speed of the game itself, which moves so fast that normally the eye can’t see the ball until it is already on the other side of the table.

To see Ping Pong in a big show such as this is to see it as part of a dense skein of interconnected ideas that Boetti explores throughout his career. The theme of doubling or duality is expressed again in Twins, a photo-montage that appears to show Boetti walking hand in hand with his identical twin but in fact is the artist himself – one person with two natures. So important was this idea to him that he began to refer to himself as though he were two people: Alighiero and Boetti.

The idea that all people are divided into body and soul, with good and bad creative and destructive sides, is the oldest cliché of all. But Boetti formulates it anew in one of his most accessible works, an arrangement of fragments of concrete in the shape of his own body splayed out on the gallery floor, like the outlines of a murder victim at a crime scene. At the breast of this heavy, earth-bound figure, he places a yellow butterfly, the ancient symbol of the soul free only in death from the prison of the body.

Boetti’s work looks under the skin or surface of things to find the normally invisible patterns, systems, and structures all around us. In one of my favourite pieces, he asked professional embroiderers to make a wall hanging symbolically representing the sequences of church bells chiming the hours and quarter hours in the Roman Church of Santa Maria in Trastevere. Worked with white thread into white fabric, the rhythmic abstract pattern he creates feels as soothing, ethereal and light as the sound it mimics.

And in his best-known series of works, the Maps, he commissioned Afghan and Pakistani women to embroider maps in which every country on earth is identified by its national flag. The result is an overview of a world in which a semblance of order in the form of national boundaries has been imposed on the chaos of competing national identities. And so the first thing that strikes you is the global confrontation between the blood- red hammer and sickle of the vast Russian land mass and the counterweight of the combined flags of Canada and the US.

Visually, the order and stability in the northern hemisphere descends into disorder and cacophony in the southern, in a patchwork of small African, South East Asian and South American countries.

Boetti was well aware that all attempts to measure or classify the world we live in are inherently unreliable. His maps were out of date the moment they were made, as wars and revolutions changed the names and altered the boundaries of several countries. But the maps are also idealistic in the sense that however kaleidoscopic the individual parts, a map of the world is a flat pattern that looks as if an artist designed it.

Boetti is an elusive, difficult artist, whose work requires time and concentration. The contrast with the Jeremy Deller show currently at the Hayward Gallery couldn’t be more instructive. Deller claims to be a simple man, so he makes simple, feel-good art that’s easy on the eye and gives you a little pat on the back. This makes him the Beryl Cook of our time. But if you want art that changes your view of things, Boetti is your man. He is infinitely rewarding.

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