From the very beginning of his career, Alighiero Boetti has believed in a duplication of objects, as of human beings, to triumph over the immobility of pieces of Art. The matter of the “double” rests on the dualism between the refusal and the acceptance of individuality. However his process is not narcissistic; indeed, it points directly towards an elastic notion of creativity, which relies on a multiplicity of contributions: the research of the identical, however, through the fusion with the other. And the other can be he, himself–the “double” in the oriental and occidental cultures become the show of the artist as a hero (as he ironically points out in Shaman-Showman, 1968), or becomes the “clone” that modern technologies allow for, to the “doubleness” of his own name, Alighiero “e” Boetti.
Boetti has a unique perspective of self and it is demonstrated throughout his career. At a personal gallery show in Brussels, in June of 1971, Boetti added the Italian “e” (or “and” in English) between his first and last names, becoming known as Alighiero e Boetti, which translates as Alighiero and Boetti. This duality, or perception of the possibilities of self, is evident in Gemelli (1968), a self portrait where he “twined himself.” He did this by taking a photo and doubling it, making it appear as though he was holding hands with himself.
In his series Mappa (1971-1994), Boetti reveals that Art professes “grassroots creativity,” where the protagonists are paritarian and planetarians. Boetti collaborated with Afghan and Pakistani artisans to create embroidered maps depicting, with each nation’s flag, the geopolitical boundaries of the world. According to this vision, Art is a mean to give each individual his own value, a democratic attempt whose aim is to renew mentality and the evaluation of oneself. The rug makers were given full control over stitching and color selection; and more importantly, Boetti solicited them to find hidden and personal rules in the execution of the rugs, as if to state the unique and difference of the single piece is based on the spiritual disposal of its executor.
Today we see more examples in design and art that encourage participation. Boetti was working on a form of this approach over 50 years ago. Beyond Boetti, others were working and contributing to the actual design and fabrication. Despite the use of national flags as design for each country, there still remained elements of unpredictable individual participation on how the final work emerged.
Boetti first went to Afghanistan in the spring of 1971. He returned various times over the following 10 years and also visited Pakistan in 1984. He claims that in Art an integrity has been lost, almost like in Medieval Times, where creativity was based on the fusion of individual energies, without distinction of range or technique. As in a collective creation, Boetti invites people to participate in the system he has established, where the basic rules allow a multiplicity of results. All these variations bring traces of different subjectivity, even if anonymous. What is important to underline is that, once turned on, the “game” proceeds alone (by itself). The artist becomes spectator of the process actuated by himself.
With this behavior, Boetti tries to put the Past in communication with the Present, so that the object has no place, but becomes nomadic, free to “live” anywhere. This concept of “linguistic decontextualization” is typical of the Italian art movement Arte Povera, with whom Boetti shared part of the adventure; nevertheless, his wandering is closer to his needs for material things. For this reason we should not forget to consider him in an intra-cultural and trans-ethnic perspective, typical of the Arabic and Islamic world.
Moreover Alighiero “e” Boetti ironically shows us that a prefixed order necessarily generates a disorder. In the embroidered maps the starting order is already a disorder: the planisphere is the unforeseeable result of human relationships. It is not an order that becomes disorder; rather it is a disorder under a false order that reveals to us its potential and infinite power of re-generation. The adoption of a mathematical order avoids subjectivity, according to Minimalism and to some of Boetti’s contemporaries such as Sol Lewitt or Frank Stella. All of them in fact affirmed the supremacy of the idea on its production, of the concept on its execution, stressing the necessity of an Art detached from quality and subjectivity. Boetti with his work, on one hand, heeds the “structuralism” will to generate a structure that can feed itself (a work of art in which he changes from author to spectator), but plays with different modalities: he doesn’t eliminate subjectivity. Rather, he keeps the traces of the process and the repetition of the process taking all the differences in an anonymous result, which is not the product of a single artist but of a multiplicity. If the Minimalism, Pop, and Conceptual artists refer to the production and consumption of Capitalism– producing objects based on impersonality, mechanism, and reproduction–Boetti builds a bridge between the western avant-garde art and the deepest eastern artisanal traditions, especially the ones of the Afghani culture.
Boetti says, “writing with the left hand is drawing,” where the left hand is the one that “makes the difference and the mistake”–the origin of unpredictable results. If the right hand is the one of the project, the left hand is the one of the “others,” to whom the artist delegates the execution of his idea.
Boetti appreciated the beauty of human creativity. Boetti said “Art can be the least futile thing in the world. A butterfly or sunset can be very beautiful, but great emotions, according to me, are felt when listening to Mozart, while reading poetry, because that is where thoughts reside…” (Annemarie Sauzeu & Alighiero Boetti 2010). His mediums of work include drawings, embroidery, and using systems. Lynne Cook said that Boetti had “works that used systems. Example of the postal service and a network and belonging to a group of artists.” In 1969 he parted from Arte Povera and began using the postal service as a system to work within his works, Post Cards.
“…with a retrospective vision on things I’ve done, I realize I’ve always worked on the Half and the Double, and the Missing Unit, this one is always missing. There is the half or the double. I used this mechanism in most of my works, even in works such as my name and surname, where you put an “and” in the middle and through this little minimum intervention you already have two persons, linguistically speaking; non only linguistically, they become real because some, who have no contact with me, really think that I have a twin, which is so true…”
“…con una visione a posteriori delle cose che ho fatto, mi rendo conto che ho sempre lavorato sulla metà e il doppio, e l’unità mancante, quella non c’è mai. C’è la metà o il doppio. Questo meccanismo l’ho usato in parecchi miei lavori, anche dei lavori come il mio nome e il mio cognome, dove si mete una ‘e’ di mezzo e con questo piccolo minimo intervento già diventano due persone linguisticamente; non solo, ma diventano proprio reali perché alcuni, che non hanno contatti con me, pensano veramente che io abbia un gemello, ed è proprio vero…”
Germano Celant, Alighiero Boetti, Milano, Skira, 2001
Curators Lynne Cooke and Christian Rattemeyer organized the Madrid exhibition at the Reina Sofia. Cooke explains that in Game Plan one can see how Boetti is “playing with time with the most substantive of metaphysical issues was a central trait in his thinking.”
To better understand the curation of Game Plan in the context of the Reina Sofia, below is an e-mail interview with the curator Lynne Cooke.
How do you see the work of Boetti relevant to our contemporary world today?
His work tells us about the place that art occupies in contemporary society, about the relationship between the conception of art and how it comes into being physically, and how it is set-up in the world.
To complete his works, Boetti engages hands from outside the art world e.g., children (Color Faces), or crafts people (local Afghan craftsmen and women); sometimes he uses quite unorthodox techniques, like pen drawings, among others practices.
His intention was to reflect the complexity of authorship within the work of art, as an unusual degree of participation from the spectator was required to complete the works, and from anonymous fabricators.
In addition, he does not maintain the habitual hierarchies, engaging equally drawing, crafts, games, doodles, children’s paintings… as high art forms, arriving at a point where he avoided the latter in favour of the other more popular vernacular ones.
What dialogue exists between Boetti’s work in the context of the Reina Sofía Museum, in Madrid?
As we have seen, Boetti’s work embodies many of the central issues in contemporary art today, and so it is central to the program of an institution like the Reina Sofía Museum.
What have been the general response of the visitors of the exhibition and any new conversations that have unfolded?
The response has been quite enthusiastic from audiences of all kinds, including both general public and specialists. People spend a lot of time with the maps in particular, maybe thinking about political issues… and also with pieces that involve games, perhaps thinking about chance or play.
What new possible discourse can emerge from Boetti’s work traveling from Madrid to London and New York?
All three cities are quite important art centers, and therefore his work is likely to generate debate in its context. It also fosters closer ties between institutions, as well as a sense of change and experimentation when encountering a work of art.
Below are select questions and responses from a phone interview by Justin Allen with Mark Godfrey, Curator at Tate Modern of the Game Plan exhibition. Godfrey’s command of Boetti comes to life through his perspective and understanding of Boetti in the context of Afghanistan. Godfrey wrote a chapter catalog entitled, “Boetti And Afghanistan”, and presents the question, “Why Afghanistan”? Godfrey also gives us insight into the curation of Game Plan at Tate. His approach to curating Boetti’s work begins chronologically and then turns to works based around a particular theory of the artist.
In a video on Tate’s website, you stated that “the most exciting artists in the world today are all really really fascinated with Boetti.” What makes Boetti’s work relevant today?
The way he deals with production. His work is made by different people he doesn’t control. The artist can delegate work. For example, the map embroidery, he allows the Afghan makers to choose the color. How his work dealt with Afghanistan. To have a voice in the work, not speak on behalf of a culture but to invite it.
He is relevant today because his work is rich in color and materiality, playing with time, there could be 20 more.
What impact has Game Plan had in the context of London?
It is too early to see what impact it with have on the London landscape. 10 years ago Boetti’s work was not in the art history narrative. We hope to correct that.
Can you explain more the installation and curating process of Game Plan at Tate?
This is from the work with three equal partners, (Reina Sofia, Tate, MoMA) and worked for three years with Lynne Cooke and Christian Rattemeyer visiting collectors and making investigations.
During the installation, I had conversations with artists who knew Boetti. My feeling was to start chronological. From 1966-1968 with Arte Povera, then 1969 with the rejection of art, and then the doubling. After that I abandoned the chronological and then organized around theory, disorder and order, time, classification, and postal work.
Questions by Justin Allen and Brunella Angeli. Responses by Christian Rattemeyer, curator at MoMA for Alighiero Boetti: Game Plan.
Do you have any new perspectives on context and audience in relation to art by curating Game Plan first at the Reina Sofia and now at MoMA? Is your approach for curating Boetti at MoMA in New York different than in Madrid?
At each venue, the respective curator had, I think, a very specific vision how to install the work, in part due to the very different architectural realities of the site, and in part due to a different reading of the artworks. Whereas Madrid emphasized the works by arranging them in groups, and London featured a more thematic approach, in New York we were interested in mixing a more strictly chronological approach with a thematic grouping. Also, as Madrid had about twice the space than we had in New York, our challenge was to distill the essential works without losing too much of the variety and wit, and the essential message that Boetti often worked in series and groups, over long periods of time.
What idiosyncrasies did you experience with the curation of Game Plan in the space at MoMA compared to the space at Reina Sofia?
Our galleries don’t have an ‘entry’ and an ‘exit’, but are constructed like a cul-de-sac. So we needed to install the exhibition such that it would read going through it once, and then seeing it again during the ‘return’ to the entry/exit to the show. We tried to emphasize this aspect by installing “Insecuro Noncurante,” Boetti’s retrospective as print portfolio at the far end wall, as if to end in a mini-retrospective of everything you have seen so far, and then revisiting it once more after the mirroring through artistic reproduction.
You worked closely with Lynne Cooke and Mark Godfrey from Tate on Game Plan, any new curatorial practices or processes emerge by working together?
Lynne Cooke was responsible for my first job in New York, in 1995, and I have the deepest admiration and respect for her, and it was sheer pleasure being able to work together as colleagues after such a long time. Mark Godfrey has been researching Boetti’s work for a couple of years, and possesses deep knowledge of all phases of Boetti’s career. Mark and I did a road trip visiting collectors and museums in Italy, and between this experience of seeing the works in situ at (mostly) private collectors, and Lynne’s memories of working with Boetti before he passed (which neither Mark nor I experienced) we could draw from a broad range of knowledge, experience, and interpretation. It was a true collaboration, and yet, each curator was free to handle the exhibition as it needed to be for their institution. It was a model practice, in my view, and a great joy and honor.
What influence or way of thinking do you believe Boetti gave to other artists during his time and to artists today?
Boetti created a model for what it meant to ‘be an artist,’ to live and work creatively, with great intensity, but also great integrity. He was extraordinarily inventive, a great colorist, and was able to reject what he saw as no longer appropriate for his practice, even if it had previously been an important, even very successful part of his work. He found solutions to problems that young artists struggle with to this date, and combined humor with precision, conceptual rigor with great poetry, and lust for life with a gift of how to make it into something that resonated independent of his personal experience, as a kind of universal truth.
Which of Boetti’s work do you believe is most representative of his viewpoint and expression as an artist? Which work speaks to you most directly and why?
For me personally, I think the Viaggi Postali are Boetti’s signature work. It combines a deeply personal selection of protagonists—drawn from his friends and family—a most rigorous conceptual approach, similar to f.i. Sol LeWitt’s Sentences of Conceptual Art, and a modesty and economy of form with almost universal meaning, and ideas of collaboration without cooperation, of networks, global economies, systems and randomness, order and disorder, while using elements widely available in the world. It is, in certain ways, his most important work. The Maps, of course, are his most iconic.
What originally attracted you to Boetti’s work and how do you believe those who experience Game Plan for the first time might respond?
I was deeply touched by the variety of his work, and how it reflected perfectly the most advanced questions art was asking at each moment, from the sculptural experiments of the second half of the 1960s to the conceptual approaches around 1969, to questions of collaboration, globalization, and the role of the artist, as well as appropriation (look at his magazine cover drawings from the early 1980s) and portraiture. Boetti, to me, is the quintessential artist.
Text by Justin Allen and Brunella Angeli
Text by Lynne Cooke, Chief Curator at Museo Reina Sofia published on January 25th, 2012.
Phone interview with Mark Godfrey, Curator of Tate Modern published on May 26th, 2012.
Text by Christian Rattemeyer, Curator of Museum of Modern Art published on July 30th, 2012.