Alighiero Boetti: Game Plan
What an elegant, confusing and delightfully strange exhibition this is. With a title like 'Game Plan' you'd have thought that everything would be clearly laid out and ordered into neat sections - which, of course, is what Tate Modern has done, in its carefully hung and considered rooms. Except that every object here is puzzling, beguiling and vexatious, perhaps proving that the author of these difficult and often wordy things, an Italian artist with the improbably lyrical name of Alighiero Boetti (1940-1994), had no such thing as a single, simple 'Game Plan'. His strategies, often loosely based around gaming rules or repetitive mathematic systems, seem conversely to champion chaos and abandonment in the face of the structures we regularly impose on the world.
An early inclination of Boetti's messy, fertile mind comes with the initial installation of his 'Hardware Store' works, created between 1966 and 1968 to give the crowded feel of a shop floor full of raw materials. Cardboard rolls spun into a tower, metal tubes criss-crossed to make a cube, wooden slats bunched into circles and a stack of paper doilies all look like hardcore minimalism done on a DIY budget. Sure enough, within months these pieces were being described as Arte Povera, Europe's riposte to the macho rigidity of American sculpture. Boetti didn't like this, or any other categorization, so quit the movement formed by his Italian brethren (Merz, Pascali, Pistoletto et al) and refused to produce anything like these sculptures again.
Boetti stayed on in staunchly working-class Turin, eschewing the art world success of the Arte Povera gang in Milan or Rome and instead initiated a one-man collective, by adding the conjunction 'and' to change his name to Alighiero e Boetti. His double self-portrait, 'Twins' (1968, pictured), in which he holds hands with his alter-ego, is just the beginning of a lifelong creative schizophrenia that led to Boetti referring to himself in the third person, outsourcing much of his production and wrongly predicting his own death (almost 30 years too late) in 2023.
However, this was no navel-gazing narcissism, in the confessional mould of many of today's auto-curious artists, but the musing of someone interested in the concept of his very being, in the passing days and thoughts that make up a life. Through his numerous series, many titles of which, in Italian - alternando, aerei, alfabetos - sound a bit like his name, he attempted to collate, record and then create visual equivalents for the duration of time.
Boetti knew that the quest for artistic immortality was pointless, it's written into each of his haltingly collaged calendars, frozen watch faces, fast-drying clay sketches and a lamp that only switches on for eleven seconds every year. Like all the best conceptual artists, he was grasping at the intangible, reaching for the universal.
The nearest Boetti got to actually picturing time was in the vast blue seas of his multi-panel 'Biro' works, in which the repetitive ballpoint scribbles of two assistants, always a man and a woman, aggregate and accrue hours of thankless handiwork in the pursuit of an abstract concept. Even more painstaking are the embroidered 'Mappe' (maps) and 'Arazzi' (tapestries), which Boetti had woven by skilled women in Kabul, each one taking between one and two years to complete. Again, rather than playing the role of some cash-rich, time-poor artist, as he would be seen now, Boetti believed he was sharing control of his output with others and, as much he could as a Westerner at that time, felt he'd truly embraced Afghani culture, to the extent that he travelled to Kabul twice a year and helped set up a hotel there in 1971.
Despite the awkward connotations of his undoubted profiteering from these laborious textile commissions, Boetti at least paid his Afghan collaborators handsomely and treated them as equals. And, while it may sound corny, the Tate's majestic room of over two decades' worth of these maps stitching together the peoples of Asia, Europe and the Middle East, speaks of a global harmony that our restless world can never match with its changing flags and shifting borders.
Boetti's enduring legacy was to regard everyone and everything as worthy of attention. A room of rugs or killims produced in Pakistan to randomised Boetti designs in the 1990s seem respectful of the Peshawar traditions of carpet making, at least to my untrained eye. His final textiles, colourful jumbles of randomly assembled images of every conceivable kind collectively entitled 'Tutto' ('Everything', produced from 1974 to 1994), were a last-ditch dice-throw at completing his inconceivable notion of comprehensively depicting the imponderable - no mean feat for two artists, let alone one who also had some help along the way.