Boetti at MAXXI
By Elizabeth Lopeman
Boetti was obsessed with symmetry, multiplicity, order vs. disorder, chance, and relationships of all kinds, especially with respect to the passage of time. The One Hotel and his projects in Afghanistan are testaments to his interest in social experiments and his general love of connections and intersecting lines, whether on a grid, a map, or in a hotel in Kabul. His impish sense of humor and his idiosyncratic gift for gesturing at unexpected relationships, rather than the methods and materials he used to get at his inquiries, are the qualities that hold his conceptual body of work together.
In 1969, Boetti fled the process-oriented Arte Povera (“Poor Art”), an art movement in Italy of which he was a founding member, saying in an interview, “I quit. The Amalfi exhibition was really the nausea of the end of it all,” and he was forever claustrophobic within the confines of definitions. In spite of his Duchampesque use of ready-made objects, usually sourced from a hardware store, Boetti believed Arte Povera had become excessive, and he turned to paper and graphite. He traced each box on pieces of graph paper with pencil in a droll and time-consuming process he called “Cimento Dell’armonia e Dell’invenzione” (“Test of Harmony and Invention”). A collection of hand-formed balls of cement in the shape of a man entitled “Io Che Prendo il Sole a Torino il 19 Gennaio 1969” (“Me Sunbathing in Turin January 19, 1969”), thought his last contribution to the Arte Povera movement, indicates the emergence of his puckish interest in the role of the artist as non-worker, which functions, in self awareness, with himself as the butt of a joke, considering he came from an industrial city with a long and sometimes violent history of labor issues.
"Viaggi Postali" by Alighiero Boetti.
Boetti enlisted the Italian postal system as collaborator in a series of works that spanned his career. The most complex was “Viaggi Postali,” which explored many of his enduring themes: multiplicity, relationships, travel, the passage of time, and most notably, chance. Boetti sent letters to twenty-five art-world friends, but to nonexistent locations. The addressees included Bruce Nauman, Leo Castelli, and Marcel Duchamp, who had died a year before. In a strict sense, “Viaggi Postali” was epistolary, but the intended function was not to impart thoughts, ideas, affections, or whatnot to the recipient (or non-recipient, in this case)—not immediately, anyway—because the letters were all returned to Boetti, and then Xeroxed and resent to the addressees at other nonexistent addresses. The letters were sent out six, seven, eight times to imaginary places with corollary names—a particular recipient’s letter, for example, would be mailed to a series of non-destinations that each had the word “Acqua” in them, or began with the letter Z, or contained the name of an Italian river. Boetti copied each piece upon return, and eventually they all came to rest in a work called “Dossier Postali.”
In 1970, Alighiero Boetti changed his name Alighiero e Boetti, meaning Alighiero and Boetti, a play on his relationship to himself and his identity. In a sense, Boetti was unmoored, which left him free to engage ideas without a responsibility to his previous works, and which drove him to explore the corners of the world: the Middle East, South America, Japan, as well as a few trips to the United States. In a video interview, Clemente mentioned a work he felt described his friend best: “Insicuro Noncurante,” which means insecure and carefree, qualities that allowed Boetti to realize oblique entrees to his ideas and concepts. Boetti and art critic Anne Marie Sauzea, his first wife, together classified the thousand longest rivers in the world, “(Classificazione dei) I mille fiumi piu lunghi del mondo” (“Classification of the Thousand Longest Rivers in the World”), from which came two embroideries, one now at the Tate Modern and the other at MoMA, as well as a book. At face value, the project seems empirical, but in fact the playfulness and arbitrariness came out of decisions, such as which bank of the river to consider or where to start the measurements, depending upon varying names of rivers in varying languages and dialects, or which tributaries had been included in the past. The book, which is included in the annals of fine art, is also considered a valuable scientific reference.
"Mappa," 1978, Alighiero e Boetti.
Included in the show at MAXXI are thirty of Boetti’s works, some of them never before exhibited, including rugs, drawings, photographs, and two of examples of his “Mappa,” elaborate and colorful hand-embroidered maps of the world, each country of which is filled in with the design of its flag. Boetti found humor and pride in the fact that he neither designed the maps, as the images were taken from pre-existing world maps, nor designed the flags, nor labored to make them, but it must be said that he indeed orchestrated the creation and exercised relationships in the process. Also at MAXXI, in the most substantial representation in the show, is a collection of fifty-one embroidered wall hangings or “arizza”, called “Poesie con il Sufi Berang.” The squares measure 103 x 105cm and contain vibrant grids of letters spelling Latin phrases with fanciful Farsi characters of Peshawar poems nested in them.
The importance of Boetti’s work—with its emphasis on playfulness, connections, chance, and the rest—assumes the greatest thrust when considering his complete ouvre. His influence surfaces repeatedly in the work of some of his contemporaries, such as Robert Rauschenberg, and is now evident in a number of current Italian painters and sculptors. Boetti suffered an untimely death in 1994 from a brain tumor. He was fifty-three. Is there something at play in the fact that his message is best realized in retrospect? Alas, probably not.