Alighiero Boetti at Tate Modern

Filed in Reviews by on March 2, 2012

Alighiero Boetti: Game Plan

Tate Modern

28 February to 27 May 2012


For an artist so enamoured with systems of order and classification, Aligheiro Boetti seems peculiarly hard to categorise.  The Tate Modern’s retrospective of the Italian’s work reveals him wearing various masks of different sizes; Boetti as craftsman, prankster, traveler, cartographer, mathematician and ghost are all poses that are dealt equal time and focus to. We are treated to a sense of the artist, not as a confirmed and coherent icon readymade for postcards and reverence, but instead as a figure in constant movement, on the run perhaps, plotting and manipulating, devising the rules of his next game.

There is an underlying chronology to the exhibit based as much on the artist’s travels as it is on the development of his work. Boetti is introduced to us in Turin where he is experimenting with the industrial materials of his home city, inviting his viewer into a deconstruction of the immediate physicality of their surroundings. This is conceptual art at its most solipsistic, concerned as it is, simply with the surface of appearances, the particular. The exhibition ends though in Afghanistan with a series of embroideries called Tutto or, Everything.

These embroideries were the result of Boetti’s compulsive collecting of images from newspapers that he’d arrange into collages, the outlines of which would then be embroidered by a variety of craftsmen and women from Afghanistan and Pakistan. The final embroideries represent the synthesis, not just of Boetti’s process and different forms of art, but also of the various news items, the cultures they represent and the personalities of the people who also helped make them. Here in Tutto we see Boetti moving beyond the local, the particular and the metonymic towards the global, the universal and the metaphoric. These twin journeys from Turin to Afghanistan and from the metonymic to the metaphoric mark Boetti as an artist who was moving towards the borderlands of art, testing the limits of what it is capable of being, of meaning.

If the last sentence seems at all contentious or even esoteric, it is understandable. These, after all, have always been the major criticisms of conceptual art – that it is obscure, suspicious and devoid of the kind of technical mastery and craft that, for many, define art and the role of the artist. Take Boetti’s maps for instance, which occupy the biggest room at the Tate exhibit.  Boetti started making maps in the early 1970s where the borders of each country are filled out by their respective flags. What this technique creates is maps of vibrant patterns and colours that also serve to plot the shifting geopolitical landscape of the Cold War era. These maps though, which are strangely mundane (always familiar even in their vibrancy), present us with other questions besides that of whether a map can actually be art, when we realise that the maps were not made by Boetti himself – they were all embroidered, stitched and (in part) designed by helpers he conscripted in Afghanistan. If we choose to call these maps art, can we still call Boetti, this champion of indeterminacy, an artist in the traditional sense?

This challenging of the role and concept of the artist is a game Boetti was obsessed with and it is one of many aspects that identifies him as a disciple of Duchamp. There is a series of self-portraits Boetti made during his travels in Guatemala where he poses with local people at tourist hotspots. These photographs are refined images that have been carefully staged. The composure is perfect and conveys the kind of finesse you’d find in the glossy adverts of a fashion magazine. In most of them Boetti avoids the gaze of the camera as though he is gesturing towards what the viewer already knows – that this is a photograph and life without choreography is happening outside of its rigid frame. This interplay between the control of art vs. the disorder of reality is complicated again by Boetti when we find out that after taking the photograph he took a copy for himself and gave one to the local. In doing this Boetti challenges the ownership not only of his photograph but also of the nature of the self-portrait – who exactly is it a self-portrait of? The artist or the layman; the foreigner or the native? In doubling his photograph Boetti also doubles its meaning.

This is all very well of course if you are prepared to indulge Boetti’s games. Postmodernism, conceptual art, whatever you want to call it, only works if the viewer is up for the ride because ultimately, the aesthetic spectacle it offers is of the intellect rather than the senses. Boetti’s is an art of circulation, of inference and perhaps of rumor.  The work isn’t actually in the gallery, it’s not on exhibit. What we see is really just the residue left behind by the art. For Boetti the art is the process, not the product. This will seem inherently suspicious to some people and it is a kind of approach to art that has made superstars out of extremely dubious figures in recent years. The thing though with Boetti is that the sheer vitality and scope of his projects, his travels, his ideas and his dedication to them reveal him as an agent of authenticity in an age where the very notion seems like a complete impossibility.  This is the paradox that the constellation of Boetti’s work points to. Within it lies the possibility of so much more than art.


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Cioran McGrath

About the Author ()

Cioran once read a book by John Berger (inadvertently) and now believes this has given him the ability to write about art, although no one has really explained to him that it’s near impossible to make a living this way. It’s unclear whether he will lose interest in the misadventure any time soon. Many hope he will. Along with being a prodigious waster of time (his as well as others’), he also writes infrequently about other things, more of which can be found at You can follow him at @CalleNine, but we’re not sure why anyone would want to.

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