Alighiero Boetti grew up in Turin, an industrial city, and although it would be glib to draw too great a comparison between the artist (particularly one so well-travelled) and a single geographical root, there’s certainly a degree of urban industriousness to his oeuvre. It’s there in his prolific output; his teams of assistants; his career-long obsession with systems, systems, systems. As Tate Modern’s retrospective makes clear, Boetti’s work is aesthetically varied but remarkably consistent in underlying methodology. Boetti always knew exactly how a work would be produced; the ‘game’ of the exhibition title was seeing how (imperfectly) his plans played out. He would get the machinery in place, and inject the ghosts.
His postal works follow an eccentrically methodical brief. Choosing a few famous or cherished figures as his addressees, he sent a bunch of letters to imaginary locations. When they were returned, he photocopied them, filed the images in an archival folder, stuffed the original envelope into a larger one and sent it elsewhere; and so on. Sometimes they got lost and often they got scribbled on by baffled postal workers. These inconsistencies complete the work. Boetti relished quirks, and allowing human intervention to disrupt his systems often had beautiful results. One room displays sets of panels with the phrase ‘mattere al mondo il mondo’ (bringing the world into the world) spelt out in a manner akin to musical notation, with the alphabet down one side and commas indicating letters in a horizontal sequence. The expansive backgrounds were coloured in by assistants with blue Biro. They’re surprisingly meditative, conjuring up an image of a poetically ordered universe, while closer up you get lost in the idiosyncratic rhythms of each person’s pen.
Boetti is best known for his embroidered maps, which are rightly given a room to themselves. From 1971 until his death in 1994 he commissioned women from an embroidery school in Kabul (a home from home for the artist) to weave them, filling each country outline with the image of its flag. The project marks some polemical shifts in political and geographical boundaries; one in particular rings with the visual changes wrought by the Soviet Union’s collapse. They’re recorded indifferently within the codes of the wider project, but around the outside of each map, texts from the artist and his team (who worked in exile from Pakistan after the Soviet invasion in 1979) inject real, subjective human sentiment.
This exhibition can get exhausting; at times the labels can read a little like rulebooks. And you do end up asking why. Why arrange a set of stamps to show every possible permutation of their colours’ Why list the thousand longest rivers in the world and embroider their names onto a wall-sized tapestry’ Boetti asked the same. ‘It mirrors the partial game of information rather than the fluid life of water,’ he explained in an introduction to the river project. All our systems tend to fail, but we still play with them incessantly in the face of an indifferent natural world.
Near the end of the exhibition is a collage and Indian ink work from 1980 titled ‘Nature - a dull affair.’ Perhaps he genuinely found the natural world dull. But he let it intrude nonetheless; he invited it in by making systems that can’t be sustained. Human nature, human error, is the crack that lets the unexpected in. Boetti was as ambivalent as the rest of us about whether that’s our ultimate strength or our ultimate weakness but he had fun with it nonetheless.