Marking time

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 28, Autumn 2011

Page 52

Marking time

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 28, Autumn 2011

Page 52

Marking time

Bonhams Magazine

Issue 28, Autumn 2011

Page 52

Alighiero Boetti employed an eclectic array of materials and processes to make his protean work. It included drawing, embroidery, photography and mail art, while his sculptural works were made of materials such as wood, cement, asbestos blocks, corrugated cardboard and cloth. His use of such mundane materials was one of the factors that linked his name to Arte Povera – a loose grouping of around a dozen Italian artists working in the second half of the 1960s. The group's economy of means has proved extremely influential – and, appropriately enough, its name implies impoverished or, more literally, 'poor art'.

Boetti's work is characterized by the emphasis he placed on collaboration and open-ended ways of producing art. Fascinated by collaborative practice, such as the tapestries he had embroidered by weavers in Afghanistan and Pakistan, the artist also explored systems of classification, such as the book he made to codify the Thousand Longest Rivers in the World from 1977.

Boetti's work, 1984, which will appear as part of Bonhams' Contemporary Art Sale in October, is very much in this vein. It belongs to a series of works the artist made during the 1970s and 1980s that laboriously copied the covers from an array of periodicals, ranging from fashion magazines such as Vogue to more specialist technical and political publications such as Science and L'Espresso. A vast work, 1984 is comprised 192 pencil drawings that depict magazine covers from that specific year. Moreover, this vast panoply of periodicals is divided into 12 panels – one for each month of the year. Thus the work is not only a portrait of different forms of knowledge and the way in which they are disseminated by the media, but also of the events and issues of the year itself.

The passing (and marking) of time was a key concern for Boetti. Consider his transient Lampada annuale (Annual lamp) of 1966. This consists of a simple box containing an electrical light bulb
that is apparently only illuminated once a year for only 11 seconds. It is a credulity testing work that holds the viewer in a constant state of suspense. The fugitive nature of Boetti's work places as much emphasis on the reification of duration as Piero Manzoni's mythologisation of the contents of his Merda d'artista (Artist's Shit) of 1961; a work that questioned the appraise of the artist, and the premium placed upon sincerity, during Italy's miracolo italiano (economic miracle) in the late 1950s and early 1960s.

Boetti's mode of capturing time finds its corollary in his comments about how traces of the past gain in worth as time moves forward, making them appear more distant. As Boetti stated, "If you, for example, write '1970' on a wall, then it appears to be nothing, nothing at all, but in 30 years... With each new day the date becomes more beautiful. Time and only time works on it. Dates possess this beauty, the more time passes, the more beautiful they become." I would argue that the atlas-like quality of 1984 has its origins in an earlier encounter that proved pivotal for Boetti. In 1973, the artist traveled to the town of Saint Paul de Vence in the south of France. There, at the Fondation Maeght, he saw an exhibition dedicated to André Malraux's fabled Le Musée imaginaire.

The event seems to have made a lasting and powerful impression on Boetti. As his wife, Annemarie Sauzeau Boetti, recalled in her memoir of the artist, Alighiero E Boetti: Shaman- Showman: "Alighiero later recalled that his imagination had been fired by the coincidental juxtaposition of works from very distant times and places: a small Babylonian statuette in honey-coloured alabaster with lapis lazuli eyes; the hieratic, but very naturalistic, wooden statue of the Egyptian Chancellor Nahhti and the divine Aztec Feathered Snake (Quetzalcoatl, to use the Aztec name) asleep in its stone knot. These totally different objects were brought together without any judgment being made about the superiority of one culture over another. The implicit belief was that nousne pouvons sentir que par comparison (we only understand through comparison)".

Douglas Crimp's essay On the Museum's Ruins suggests how this way of presenting objects may have influenced Boetti. Malraux, Crimp observes, "was enraptured by the endless possibilities of his museum, by the proliferation of discourses it could set in motion, establishing even new stylistic series simply by reshuffling the photographs".

Boetti's earlier works such as Mimetico (Mimetic), executed in 1966, a piece that examined the mirror image pattern of a piece of camouflage fabric, may, at first appearance, seem to have complied with the political aims of Arte Povera. Germano Celant – the movement's main critic and curator who had written the manifesto, Notes for a Guerilla – described the artists work as "assault[ing] the viewer" and, "awakening the horror of cultural reality".

However, this work was far more concerned with mimesis than militancy, and perhaps bears better comparison with Boetti's investigations into twining, doubling and tautology, such as the photographic Gemelli (Twins) of 1968, in which the artist – presented as a double image through photomontage – appears to be holding hands with himself.

But then Boetti flirted with a baffling array of styles and subjects throughout his career, ranging from the esoteric to the populist. His tautological series I Colori (The Colors), begun in 1967, employed square enameled iron panels which were then spray-painted with colors used by Italian car firms. These included Alfa Romeo, Ferrari, Fiat, Maserati (the same automobile companies that the Red Brigades declared themselves at war with in the late sixties) and the motorcycle manufacturers Gilera and Guzzi. Boetti's works are a sardonic comment on how such colors were being commodified and how branding had become endemic.

In the case of his 1967 diptych Rosso Gilera 60 1232, Rosso Guzzi 60 1305, the hues differ only slightly, but the fact that the two colors are 'owned' by Gilera and Guzzi, which were competing companies, is emphasized by the embossed name and industrial code of the color that is prominently emblazoned on each panel.

By the end of the sixties, Boetti was growing tired of being part of Arte Povera and starting to push against the constraints of belonging to a self identified group. By the early 1970s he had separated himself from the movement, whilst continuing to explore the themes that mattered to him: permanence and transience in an ever changing world.

In 1969 he had produced Planisfero politico (Political map of the world), which was made from a paper geopolitical map of the world, and delineated the man-made territorial boarders of each country in the nation's flag. In 1971, after his first trip to Afghanistan the previous year, he had his maps embroidered by local weavers using traditional skills.

Boetti's Mappe (Maps), produced from 1971 until his death in 1994, created a series that would ironically constitute the most comprehensive, durational and open-endedly political works associated with Arte Povera. Boetti's complete cycle of maps, created during a 20-year period, reveal such changes as the decline of the Soviet Union and the fall of the Berlin Wall, through the shifting colors and emblems that evoke each country and the political system that governs it.

Nicholas Cullinan is Curator of International Modern Art at Tate Modern.

Sale: Contemporary Art
Thursday 13 October at 4pm
Enquiries: Anthony McNerney
+44 (0) 20 7468 5834
anthony.mcnerney@bonhams.com
www.bonhams.com/contemporaryart

Related auctions