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Alighiero Boetti (1940-1994)

I mille fiumi più lunghi del mondo (The Thousand Longest Rivers in the World)

Alighiero Boetti (1940-1994)
I mille fiumi più lunghi del mondo (The Thousand Longest Rivers in the World)
signed 'alighiero e boetti' (on the overlap)
44½ x 47 5/8in. (113 x 121.3cm.)
Executed circa 1975
Galleria d'Arte Moderna Emilio Mazzoli, Modena.
Private Collection, Italy.
Anon. sale, Christie's London, 21 October 2003, lot 63.
Acquired at the above sale by the present owner.
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Alice de Martigny
Alice de Martigny

Lot Essay

This work is registered in the Archivio Alighiero Boetti, Rome, under no. 430.

'It was a central work for Alighiero, revealing how inconsistent and disparate and fragmented common knowledge is in reality. Here, again, so many elements coalesce: Alighiero's fascination with geography and allegory; with the mysticism of the river and its Zen parable: with politics, as all scientific notions are bounded by economic and political will. I mille fiumi pi lunghi del mondo is an exemplary work in that it bridges worlds that don't otherwise touch each other, while demonstrating that there is no such thing as a hard fact.' (Francesco Clemente cited in Alighiero e Boetti, exh. cat. Gagosian Gallery, New York, 2001, p. 77.)

Mille fiumi piu lunghi del mondo (The thousand longest rivers in the world) is an extremely rare and important work belonging to the project 'CLASSIFYING the thousand longest rivers in the world' that occupied both Boetti and his wife Anne-Marie Sauzeau-Boetti for most of the 1970s. Initially inspired by Albert Hochheimer's 'Novel of Big Rivers' (first published in Italy in 1956), this extensive project culminated in 1977 with the publication of a thousand-page book documenting the thousand longest rivers of the world and in the creation of two large and unique embroidered tapestries that each visually listed the results of their research in descending order. These two tapestries, one white on a green background (now in the Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt am Main), the other - like the present work - made of coloured dots on a white background (now in the MoMA, New York) are among the most important works of Boetti's entire career.

The present work, also entitled Mille fiumi piu lunghi del mondo, was created as a part of this project around 1975. It is one of four distinct and individual works - each executed in a different colour and always intended to stand alone from each other - that collectively constitute a complete list of the thousand rivers. This work, executed on a white background, is similar to but not exactly the same format as the large MoMA tapestry. Like the MoMA Mille fiumi the words and numbers of this work are embroidered with coloured dots on a white background, but the format these take is not exactly the same. The two complete embroidered tapestries in Frankfurt and New York each catalogue all thousand of the thousand longest rivers of the world from '1, the Nile- Kagera' to '1000, Agusan'. The present work, which catalogues a quarter section, displays a segment of the list beginning with '328, Arinos' and ending with '933 Corumba'. As in the MoMA tapestry the letters and numbers are all made up of a sequence of coloured dots. These dots deliberately mimic the pixellated print-out of the pin-printer which Anne-Marie Sauzeau had used to print out the extensive information she collated and stored on her computer pertaining to the rivers. This novel and composite way of creating a letter or sign, appealed greatly to Boetti who incorporated a sense of this computerising of language into the logic of the white tapestry in such a way that, in the tapestries, the information seems to emerge out of a myriad constellation of random colour.

Consistent with the development of Boetti's aesthetic of mettere al mondo il mondo (bringing the world into the world) that would later produce such self-demonstrative works as the Mappe, the main aim behind the 'thousand rivers' project was to demonstrate how the structures of nature resist such classifying orders. In so doing Boetti hoped to demonstrate the innate principle of ordine e disordine (the ancient mystic principle that the world exists as a complex but cohesive union of flux between order and disorder) at work within the world. The 'thousand rivers' project was indeed particularly appropriate in this respect because Boetti's entire concept of ordine e disordine was based on the philosopher Heraclitus's notion of the world being like a river. The world is like a river, Heraclitus maintained, because it too is a unity held in a constant state of flux and to demonstrate this he is famously said to have remarked that 'one can never step into the same river twice'.

Boetti's 'thousand rivers' project was to show, through the medium of the world's rivers, that as well as being interdependent and the two central principles out of which our human sense of phenomenal reality is made, both order and disorder remain ultimately distinct from one another. They are structures that man has imposed on the world in order to gain an interpretation of it. Man calls the flux of nature 'disorder' purely because it does not conform to his own concept of order, yet as Boetti sought to demonstrate in this project, it is this notion of order that, like our modern way of life, is in fact at odds with the natural world. As in all of Boetti's work from 1970 onwards, it is, he asserts, only through an understanding of the union of these two concepts within one harmonious whole that a true model of the world can be formed.

'I have worked much with the concept of order/disorder' he once said, 'you will always find the one in the other, the order in disorder, the natural in the artificial, the shadow in the light, and vice versa. Perhaps the other side, that is the natural order of things is also structured as follows: everything moves in waves, and the waves are composed of mountains and valleys, intervals, pauses and silence' (cited in Alighiero Boetti 1965 -1994, exh. cat., Turin, 1996, p.213,)

It took Boetti and his wife nearly four years, from 1970 to 1974, to gather all the necessary information to form a complete list of the thousand longest rivers in the world. Consulting a wide range of different official sources and scientific institutions throughout the world they soon came to recognise the depth of the disparity that existed on this subject; it being, of course impossible to accurately measure the length of a river. Flood plains, deltas, tributaries, named and unnamed rivers, meanderings etc. as well as the precise time of the measurement (during the wet season or dry season for example) all made the task even more ridiculous than they had originally thought. In addition to this they soon realised that there was no consistency in the way in which the information they were receiving from the various scientific institutions around the world had been gathered.

From a wide variety of data and with the help of many geographic institutes, governments, universities and other institutions around the world, they formulated the world's first consistent, comprehensive and 'accurate' list of the thousand longest rivers in the world. This list formed a unity in that its data formed a worldwide consensus of the various disparate institutions that had helped to gather it. The data was then processed by Sauzeau on her computer and printed out in document form on typewriter paper. These documents formed the basis of the book, 'CLASSIFYING the thousand longest rivers in the world', published in 1977. They also became the basis of the word and number map that became the instructions for the Afghan embroiderers who were to make the tapestries. This making of the tapestries by others, in the heart of the East, was itself another deliberately unifying aspect of the work that physically combined the supposedly separate worlds of East and West together within its singular concept. Situated at the heart of Boetti's aesthetic and part of a world-spanning collaborative practice of creation that he would extend throughout the rest of his career, Boetti's 'river' tapestries represent the most ambitious and complex completed project of his extraordinarily varied career.

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