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Boetti: the maverick spirit of Arte Povera London, U.K.
Whitechapel Gallery
sept. 15th - nov. 7th 1999
Irene Amore
ISSN 1127-4883     BTA - Telematic Bulletin of Art, July 11th 2000, n. 206 (October 19th 1999)

Alighiero Boetti, or Alighiero e (i.e. and) Boetti?
The riddle on the artist's identity is not new in the contemporary western culture and in this specific occasion it has already raised an extraordinary interest even amongst the cleverer English art journalists and critics.

The first version's simple function is clearly to provide personal data, as yet in the demystificated artist's signature in the contemporary artwork (and this reminds me - maybe in connection with last year's retrospective at the Serpentine Gallery - the Piero Manzoni's sardonic smile while he is signing his model's real nudity 1 .

The second version, instead, better tells us the story, and especially the geographical approach of the less known, less studied and definitely less seen in London member of the Italian Arte Povera group.
Whilst finally finding his space for a well presented and thoroughly comprehensive retrospective at the Whitechapel Gallery in London (from the 15th September to the 7th November) 2 , Boetti seems to have overcome that personal distrust for the British people and culture to which one of his most pop works, Stiff Upper Lip (1966) ironically refers.

It's only a shame that Boetti is not with us, as he died in 1994, at the age of 54. Nevertheless, his absence is somehow a further proof of that subtle trick of the unpredictable in which Boetti was so interested 3 , and which is the main critical object of this retrospective too.

From his first involvement in the Arte Povera launch in Turin with an exhibition at the gallery Christian Stein curated by Germano Celant (in January 1967), up to the 70s and even after, when the whole Arte Povera's legacy was for Boetti more of a horn in his side than an inspiration 4 , Boetti constantly reflects and makes others reflect upon that mysterious gap between order and disorder, rational and irrational, structure and chaos, function and disfunction that is anyway one of the leit-motif of modern and contemporary arts and that becomes central in the discussions after the Second World War in Italy 5 .

To welcome the visitors at the Whitechapel Gallery we then firstly find two enigmatic and playful "comments" on art: the Manifesto (printed in 1967) and Yearly Lamp (1966).
The first is an actual poster in which, arranged in a sort of red Top-Ten, a list of fifteen Italian artists of the 60s (such as Fabro, Nespolo, Pistoletto, Kounellis, Merz, Schifano and himself) appears together with secret and puzzling symbols related to each of them.
The key to interpret these symbols, as Boetti declared, is carefully kept by a lawyer in a document available to anyone who would like to pay an appropriate fee. So far nobody has been able to trace the lawyer. Is this maybe a comment on the impossibility of making any sort of definite assessments on art and its representatives, whereas for an act of fate the explanation has got lost ?

Next to the Manifesto, a big lightbulb in a black box is expected to lit up for 11 seconds every year. But who has ever seen it? Does it really work? Most of all, who will ever find time and patience to observe the lightbulb for 365 days non-stop? Isn't the lightbulb here a metaphore for the artistic inspiration ?

Already in these early works we can foresee Boetti's inclination to move outside any groups, and move at the edge. His intentions are already different from those of Celant, from Celant's theorical approach which was still rich in idealism. Although Boetti shares the Arte Povera general language and methods as prescribed by Celant («use of the simplest material and natural elements for description or rapresentation of nature», «Like an organism of simple structure, the artist mixes himself with the environment, camouflages himself, he enlarges his threshold of things», «estrangement from the existing archetype and continuing renewal of himself», «loss of identity», «cultural kleptomania» 6 ), however he clearly tends to demystify our concept of artwork and artist, and in so doing he takes distance from Celant's poetic concept of the artist magician and alchemist. Instead, he seems to get closer to many conceptual artists his contemporaries 7 .

Thus, adopting the care of an artisan, the precision of a scientist (observer) and the curiosity of a self-taught, Boetti explores codes, symbols, nomenclatures which logically represent the natural order in which we live, and searches for that moment and way in which their intelligible structure and their meaning naturally sway: «I had been stuck by the fact that society's very foundations, its gigantic structures, would collapse if only some minute element were no longer there».

He also said: «One of the most outstanding errors of our culture is the division of the uniqueness and globality of the world into rigid classifications».

In Contest Between Harmony and Invention 8 , made in 1969 at the end of his involvement with Arte Povera, Boetti re-traces 25 sheets of graph paper, but also varies it with his pencil. The graph paper squared shape verifies its geometrical perfection as well as its limits where the invention makes its way. Playful combinations with maths and geometry are assembled in series which become more complex from 1980. Apart from drawings Boetti also involved himself in mail-art (Senza Numero I-VI, 1972), and in the production of embroidery.

In addition, time (that is the passing by of the hours) and space (that is the geography of lands and rivers) are subject to the same sort of test.
«Time is fundamental, it is the main element in everything, the dates, the stamps and the squares are all ways of 'managing' time ... It is incredibly elastic». In the gigantic The Hours Tree (1979) Boetti recorded each quarter (through the symbol §) and each half (through the symbol 0) of the hours rung by the bells at S. Maria in Trastevere Church, where his studio was at that time. The result is then depicted with a careful symmetry in an embroidery commissioned by Boetti to some Afghan weavers. The result is also imperfect: the last two quarters in the embroidery are missing because of religious reasons that stopped the weavers to go any further in the work.

Classifying the thousand longest rivers of the world is a work in form of research that kept Boetti busy for a very long period, from 1970 to 1977. With the collaboration of his wife, the art critic Annemarie Sauzeau, Boetti contacted numerous geographic societies and universities to have the most precise classification ever made. The result of this research, reproduced in a volume and then in 2 embroideries, just proves its unfeasibility, due to either the partial informations obtained and the intangible and varied nature of water.
Finally in the more famous Maps, colourful embroidery represent the world divided in nations, with the national flags standing for each nation. However, each embroidery commissioned as usual to the Afghan weavers had to be updated according to the continuous historical changes of power and borders, and therefore remade with new colours and new flags. The story of Boetti's embroidery is amongst the most interesting in his experience as traveller. His adventure in Afghanistan started in 1971, included him buying and managing an hotel in Kabul, and ended only when Afghanistan was occupied by the Soviet army in 1979. Although these trips were made following the hippy era, Boetti was much more authentic and genuine in his reasons and never showed the attitude of the "tourist".

In the same period Boetti decides to stop directly realising and producing his artworks, or "objects" as he preferred to call them. Since then Boetti commissions others to make them: Afghan weavers for the maps series and The Hours Tree, various acquaitances for The Six Senses (1973). Here the apparent silky surface is actually the result of 11 people's various traits. These people were commissioned to fill in big-sized panels of paper using blue Biro. On this "fabric" with all its infinite variations of tone and line, fluctuant commas are casually located. According to a specific system of decodification (readable through an alphabet at the left hand side of the panels) they reproduce the name of the five senses, plus a sixth, the thinking.

In commissioning others to produce his works, Boetti applied a strategy which is the same as other conceptual artists: beyond the initial idea, what really interests Boetti are the unpredictable versions and expressions provided by anyone intervening to produce the artwork. The artist's authority, his unique function as originator and producer, is not necessarily erased but playfully shifted to his collaborators, in a scheme which is not any more vertical but horizontal. All the parts are then there to participate in the multivocal reality of the artwork.

As noted before, the artist's identity issue is of special interest in Boetti, and it is strictly related to the relationship between order and disorder. Not only is there no egocentrism in Boetti's work, but in his double portraits (Twins, 1968) as well as in the invention of a double name (Alighiero being «the more infantile side, the more external», and Boetti the "more abstract"), we can recognise the modest need for facing the multiple points of view and the various specific sensibilities that every single subject experiences.

Boetti's work is ingenious, but not cunning, and light, but not superficial. It helps us think in our own preconceived and automatic definitions of time, space and identity, but he doesn't bore with redundant intellectualism and Sophism (and he was keen on this philosophy ...) The last work, in chronological order, appearing in this retrospective is called Everything (1989). The mania for classifying leads to this ironic and hectic montage of images taken from various sources, animal encyclopaedias, oriental miniatures, newspapers. It appears like a parody of the artistic philosophical aim to represent everything, but it also proves that the vicinity of each minimal image with the others is condition for its visibility.


1 Living Sculpture by Piero Manzoni, Galleria La Tartaruga, Roma, 22 April 1961.

2 Also, from 16th September to 30th October, Laure Genillard Gallery, in association with Massimo Minimi Gallery in Brescia, presents drawings and samples of mail art.

3 «16 Dicembre 2040 11 Luglio 2023», in two embroideries, represents two dates, the first to celebrate Boetti's 100 years, the second to indicate the year given to Boetti in a dream as the year of his death.

4 In 1969, Boetti is tired of his studio: "In the spring of '69 I left the studio I had in Turin, which had become a warehouse for materials, full of asbestos, lumber, cement, stones. I left everything exactly as it was and started again from scratch with a pencil and a sheet of paper" (from Time Out, 29 Settembre - 6 Ottobre 1999, Sarah Kent).

5 Giuliano Briganti comments on the years between '50s e '60s as follows: "The passage from the 1950s to the 1960s marked the beginning of a profound transformation ... One might characterise it as a series of negations: the negation of the principle of authority, of all dogmatism, of ideological schemes, of political engagement and of traditional expressive means... Or, as some artists did, one might stress the need for formal absoluteness, the exclusion of all elements extraneous to the art in question, the investigation of new themes and respect for the pluralism of positions that aspired to a complete rupture with the past ... A new and provocative current swept away existentialism's clouds of ontological anguish, the romantic and visceral sensibility of Informel, and above all the super-ego of commitment that had been nurtured by intellectual anxiety and by a sense of guilt ... The new objective, which was presented as a pure, absolute affirmation of vitality and freedom, did not presuppose a priori certainties and did not presume to convey any message. It excluded all objective or subjective transcriptions of reality into pre-established languages, whether abstract or realistic, all recourse to those techniques that have traditionally pertained to painting and sculpture ... It was a vitality that broke through all schematic barriers, quick as mercury, provocative and disenchanted.", in "Italian Art in the 20th Century", Prestel-Verlag Munich, 1989 (catalogue of the exhibition held at the Royal Academy of Arts from 14th January to 9th April 1989)

6 From Germano Celant, Arte Povera, Milan, 1969 translated in "Art Povera. Conceptual, actual or impossible art?", London, 1969

7 Especially the following Celant's assertion can hardly apply to Boetti: "separate language that speculates on codes and on instruments of communication in order to live in a dimension of exclusiveness and recognition that makes it an aristocratic and class question", from Germano Celand, Arte Povera, as above.

8 Part of a series called out of Vivaldi's Opus 8.

Boetti: the maverick spirit of Arte Povera is part of a large series of events which celebrate Italian culture and art in United Kingdom from September 1999 to January 2000. Through exhibitions, lectures, concerts, perfomances and a section within the London Film Festival dedicated to Italian cinema, the ITALIAN FESTIVAL 1999 proves and together stimulates the interest for Italian culture in Britain.

With regards to visual arts, together with a review on the Arte Povera movement (which includes this exhibition plus two exhibitions on Michelangelo Pistoletto - a retrospective at MOMA in Oxford from 17th October to 30th December and a recent works' exhibition at the Henry Moore Foundation Studio in Halifax from 19th October to 19th March), other events are as follows:

  • Mimmo Paladino, South London Gallery, 8 September - 17 October
  • Paladino/Eno, The Roundhouse, 9 September - 6 October
  • Lino Mannocci: Storie di mare, Art First, 4 - 28 October, The Italian Cultural Institute, 7 - 29 October
  • Marino Marini, Accademia Italiana, 6 October - 21 November
  • Gino Severini: from Futurism to Classicism, Estorick Collection, 6 October - 9 January
  • Lucio Fontana, Hayward Gallery, 14 October - 9 January
  • Renaissance Florence: the art of the 1470s, The National Gallery, 20 October - 16 January



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