Alighiero Boetti: Game Plan @ Tate Modern – REVIEW
Amid the flurry of spectacular publicity for the psychedelic hyped-up hyper show that is the Yayoi Kusama retrospective, Tate Modern is announcing, rather quietly, the opening of another equally major exhibition, of the work of Alighiero Boetti. Boetti is strangely unheard of, particularly in this country; and yet is can be argued that he is one of the most influential figures for many young artists across the world today.
For those who do recognise his name, he is most often associated with the twentieth-century Italian movement Arte Povera, which originated in Turin, where Boetti was born and begun his career in the 1960s. The curators of this retrospective, however, clearly see Boetti as transcending this classification. For them he is first and foremost Boetti and not ‘an Arte Povera artist’. This is a distinction that Boetti himself sought to make from 1969 onwards, citing a growing nausea with Arte Povera’s obsession with materiality. The layout of the show clearly emphasises this separation.
At the beginning the artist’s work is presented roughly chronologically. The pieces in the first room, the earliest works, are arranged with reference to how they were originally displayed by Boetti, (grouped together in a certain way, or positioned in a corner or against a wall etc.). The objects are simple structures, such as stacked pipes, a tightly wound roll of cardboard pressed up at its centre so that it extrudes to make a sort of tower, and a playful work in which hundreds of cake doilies are stacked to make a column. These are labelled as Boetti’s artistic origins, and as his brief ‘Arte Povera moment’. In the next room comes a work called ‘Nothing to See Nothing to Hide’ (a mullioned pane of glass leant up against the black wall), with which the curator suggests that Boetti broke from Arte Povera. And yet in those first objects we can see a lot of the ideas that would become central to Boetti’s practice: the notion of the game, repetition, and the significance of the child-like, even dumb, act – such as putting one thing on top of another. As Christian Rattemeyer, who will curate the exhibition when it goes to MoMA, said, it seems that, ‘every work contains the kernel of every other work’.
After the Arte Povera rooms, then, the chronology breaks down and the layout opens up, with the visitor able to take any route, to backtrack and choose between options – restructuring the show for themselves as they play the game of piecing it together. These spaces contain the later work, up to 1994 with Boetti’s death. They are organized thematically, from ‘Order and Disorder’, to ‘Aeroplanes and Children’s Games’.
One remarkable room has the title ‘Giving Time to Time’. It contains works in a range of media, from letters crotched in lace, to an inscribed surface of quick drying cement, to sixteen custom made watches mounted on canvas and framed. Particularly stunning is a pale embroidery that records, in symbol notation, the number of times over a day that church bells located near the artist’s Rome studio chimed, called ‘L’albero dale ore’, and made in 1979. The meticulous work of constructing this intricate field of thread contuse a laying down of time, each moment caught in a stitch (‘A stitch in time…’). They add up endlessly like the seconds that form minutes and then hours, or the grains of sand that pile up in an hourglass. The surface becomes a kind of repository of vast quantities of time. This is the wonderful thing about Boetti’s oevre: that his childlike acts and simple rules give rise to works of breathtaking poetry and depth, and yet manage to retain a lightness. They are both weighty and resonant, and playful and delicate.
Boetti is, in many ways, an artist’s artist. His work is complex, can seem impenetrable and, despite its lightness or playfulness, it is difficult. But he is an extraordinary artist and one who’s work is very relevant and influential today. So while the crowds may be drawn to the gaudy polka dots of Kusama like moths to a flame, don’t forget that just up one escalator further is this magnificent show. Words Laurence Lumley © 2012 ArtLyst