Chance is the name of the game: Alighiero Boetti at Tate Modern

Twin concepts: Shaman/Showman

As I walk through the archway to room two of the Alighiero Boetti exhibition at Tate Modern, above which are two signs, flashing alternately; one the word ‘PING’, the other ‘PONG’, curator, Mark Godfrey is standing, discussing the piece Shaman/Showman: ‘Despite an artist potentially being seen as both, Boetti believed the terms to be incompatible.’

These pieces offer an interesting juxtaposition; the first representing a logical pairing of words, ‘ping’ and ‘pong’, whilst the words in the title of the second, in Boetti’s view, playfully contradict one another – a concept he took further when he changed his name to Alighiero e Boetti in the late 1960s, to conceptually, and somewhat facetiously, represent himself as a pair of twins.

Boetti liked games. He used a variety of playful methods to explore systems and the idea of order and disorder, depicted by sequences within grids and chequerboards, demonstrable in his works Contest of Harmony and Invention and Chequerboard.

Having parted ways with the Arte Povera movement, of which he was instrumental in establishing, Boetti opted for his own direction, drawing on themes of chance, order and disorder and, as well as indulging his interest in the socio-political issues of Afghanistan, also exploring the function of linguistic and numeric systems – all, often, carried out in a slightly waggish manner.

In his postal works, he plays with the idea of chance by sending series of postcards, telegrams and letters through the mailing system, with a selection of constants and variables representative of mathematical sequencing.

Sequencing: La Mole Antonelliana

In changing pre-determined variables, such as the three stamps used in every possible sequence on six telegrams, as seen in Postal Work (Permutation), or the starting destination and image on a series of seven postcards in La Mole Antonelliana, chance creeps in with the variable postal service and the post marks it generates.

The postal works are also demonstrable of Boetti’s views on how artists should work. Godfrey explains: ‘Boetti believes that the artists’ work should not be about efficiency, but should explore the ideas of inefficiency and wastage.’

This is ironic as despite the methods in his work exploring these ideas, he was hugely efficient when it came to the volume of work produced, although it should be noted that Boetti handed over many of his concepts to be completed by others.

Such is the case in his biro works, where a group of students created a series of biro on canvas pieces, each taking responsibility for an individual panel. The works often had a coded message created with whited-out comma symbols in the horizontal plane, aligned with the vertical running alphabet down the left hand panel.

Each student had a different style of crosshatching on the panel so, again, the idea of chance comes into play, in terms of the look of the finished piece, but in addition the idea of using what is generally available, and cheap, around you, a hangover from Boetti’s Arte Povera days, comes through in the work – the ubiquitous biro is used instead of expensive, specialist paints, for example.

Despite the pleasure these somewhat eccentric and, often, self indulgent pieces bring, and which allow Boetti to be the showman, one must not be diverted from taking a good look at his series Mappa and his piece Classifying the Thousand Longest Rivers in the World, that, for me, are the most important elements of this show.

In Mappa, we find a collection of world maps, hand-embroidered by exiled Afghanistan women, that had the aim, as Godfrey puts it, of: ‘Putting the image of the world into the world.’ This comes as the ultimate extension of Boetti’s idea of using what was around him to create, symbolised in the maps by the flag of each country being embroidered into the space the country occupied on the map at the time it was created.

This process was repeated many times between 1971 and 1994, the year of Boetti’s premature death, and each of the maps represent the changing face of the world over this period. Wars and civil wars, as well as battles for independence, are all represented, categorised by the date of completion, making each map in the series a, visually, historical document.

Again, Boetti allowed chance to creep in as much of the work was left to Italian researchers and the Afghanistan women, removing the control of the artist’s hand, that of the shaman, from the process.

In the pink: Mappa, 1979

One charming story that resulted from this came about when a map, completed in 1979, was returned with a pink sea – a colour of thread that was in good supply at the time. The women, living in a landlocked country and unfamiliar with the image of the world map, hadn’t understood the space to be representative of the oceans. Boetti liked this chance factor so much that he allowed freedom of choice for the colour of the water in future map works.

For Classifying the Thousand Longest Rivers in the World, Boetti did exactly what the title suggests. However, as with many of his other works, there is still a degree of chance involved, with the subjectivity of where one should measure a river from and to, at which point in the rise and fall of water levels and at which point at its width.

The project took many years to complete but the processes were documented thoroughly by his first wife, Anne Marie Sauzeau.

Seminal: Classifying the Thousand Longest Rivers in the World

As the Mappa series is an important categorisation of the changing face of the world over a 23 year period, as well as piece of art, Classifying the Thousand Longest Rivers in the World has become a seminal work, now used by scientists and researchers as a point of reference.

The playful charm of Boetti’s exploration of chance and order has been put aside, allowing a more serious sense of expression of these ideas to come through, making these pieces, in my view, stand above the works in the other rooms.

Saying that, the exhibition is certainly worth exploring as, each time you view his work, those chance encounters that make Boetti worth a second, third and even fourth look will become increasingly evident, creating a new experience and appreciation of his work each time you view it.

Louis Pasteur, a man who certainly knew the importance of chance, once said: ‘Chance favours the prepared mind.’ In this case, chance is well worth the risk.

Alighiero Boetti: Game Plan, Tate Modern, SE1 (020 7887 8752) until May 27.

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