Ordine e Disordine:
The Life and Art of Alighiero Boetti
The art of Alighiero Boetti is a holistic one. Although its roots lie in the experimental and collaborative climate of the late 1960s and in the aesthetics of Arte Povera, it transcended its origins to become a completely unique and wholly autonomous body of work. Indeed, it is one that now seems to stand alone amongst much of the art of the last thirty years, as a simple and lovingly built platform of hope that points to the future as the arena of the possibility of a better world.
Like many of the artists from his generation Boetti’s approach to his work was one that attempted to show the world, without artifice, craft or deception, the way that it actually is. Boetti’s working practice, which he called mettere al mondo il mondo (bringing the world into the world), was essentially a more inclusive and complete version of the kind of mimesis then current in the work of many of his Arte Povera colleagues. From Pascali’s weapons and Pistoletto’s mirror-paintings to Paolini’s blank canvases, Kounellis’s numbers, cacti, coffee or coal, and Penone’s revealed trees, this was a generation of artists who responded to calls for an ‘open’ and ‘authorless’ work of art by using tautology and mimesis as a way of turning the world back in on itself in order to reveal itself more clearly.
Echoing in some respects the minimalist and conceptual developments then taking place in America, in Italy, this mimesis was less the kind of investigatory questioning that characterised a conceptual artist like Joseph Kosuth’s One and three hammers in which a real hammer, a photocopy of it and a dictionary definition of a hammer are thrown into conjunction with one another. It was more a revelatory process. Steeped in Mediterranean history and culture, the notion of time and of timelessness permeates even the most severe and analytical approach of the Italians’ work. In contrast to many American artists’ probing investigation of reality - an aesthetic which conjured the notion of reality as being a kind of ‘final frontier’ - the Arte Povera artists’ approach seemed to be one of attempting to remove the scales, or layers of scales, from the viewer’s eyes in order to reveal the complex multiplicity, not of a new world, but of the world we already know, a world already in situ. Their use of ordinary mundane objects and materials was certainly a part of this. It was also the reason that Boetti came to produce ‘ordinary’ objects such as kilims and tapestries that are by nature domestic items that play a central role in the daily life of ordinary people as well as being, through his intervention, artworks on display in the world’s greatest museums and galleries. This aim of using his art as a bridge between the daily lives of ordinary people was but another part of his central aesthetic of combining opposites, the philosophical principle of the harmony of united opposites that he called ordine e disordine.
This principle of ordine e disordine (order and disorder) ultimately dictated the course of both Boetti’s art and his life. Based on the mystic principle that the world - like all totalities - is in a constant state of flux between the forces of order and disorder, each permeating one another, interacting and together generating a harmonious unity, Boetti sought to reveal this process at work as a way of healing the traumatic rifts that divide our modern world. Building on the simple yet complex game-like systems such as his Dama (Checkers) where a seemingly disordered patterning is arrived at from a simple ordering of a group of signs and symbols Boetti developed the ordine/disordine principle in a variety of highly inventive and ever more expansive ways. The most expansive perhaps being his collaboration with the women embroiderers and weavers in Afghanistan. A practical and real extension of an artist such as Joseph Beuys’s philosophy of ‘everyone an artist’ and ‘we are the revolution’, Boetti’s creative partnership with the craftswomen of Afghanistan, was also a clear political statement. Through his involving of the ancient hand-made craft tradition of one of the poorest ‘third world’ countries in the manufacturing of a contemporary artwork, Boetti once again brought together two opposites and united them through the medium of his work. Boetti’s tapestries with their representations of order and disorder combining are therefore, more than a mere symbol of this principle, they are material proof of its active participation in the world. By uniting the demands of the contemporary art market with a craft-based tradition that was dying out in Afghanistan because of the Western world’s manufacturing industry, Boetti was geographically transcending all the cultural, commercial and ideological barriers that exist between the East
and the West. In effect it was a demonstration of the principle of ordine e disordine in action and of its power to heal rifts and unite the world.
The Mappe - Boetti’s geopolitical tapestries demonstrating the artist’s holistic and globalised vision - are clearly one of the artist’s most complete ideological works in this respect. They are also among the most poignant in that being centred on and made in Afghanistan (and later Pakistan) they catalogue the trauma of the Soviet invasion of the country and its continuing upheaval at the very same time as they postulate the notion of a united world undivided by political difference. Outliving the Soviet invasion and indeed, the Soviet Union itself, the history of the Mappe, which originated in 1971 as a globalised extension of Boetti’s great conceptual chart of the world’s trouble spots in the Dodice forme dal 10 giugno 1967, dramatically catalogue the shifting impermanence of all political boundaries, the temporality of all empires, the suffering of the Afghan people and, in spite of everything, their triumphant and continuing survival.
Increasingly, throughout his life, Boetti became more and more drawn to Afghanistan. The country’s emptiness, its harsh, desert landscape and the simple, focused and disciplined lifestyle of its people in spite of and to some extent because of the material hardships they have been forced to endure, appealed to Boetti’s innate nature as indeed did the incisive mysticism of the Sufis. Francesco Clemente who travelled to Afghanistan with Boetti in the ‘70s described the country as a place ‘devoid of the cacophony of capitalism’ where Boetti’s ‘thoughts could expand without being interfered with by contemporary taste’. The extreme opposites represented by the modern Western way of life and the ancient way of living in Afghanistan undoubtedly fuelled Boetti’s notion of both the division of the world and the need to heal these rifts. After a visit to Frédéric Bruly Bouabré on the Ivory Coast in the late 1980s, Boetti had been struck by a comment that Bouabré had made; ‘when people are different, they can only communicate through art or war.’ Boetti sought to counter the need to resort to war through the language of art and through the establishment of secret languages. Such secret languages form the basis of many of his coded systems and biro works like I sei sensi, but, in addition, they are also often embedded within his art works. These secret languages are ones that are perhaps known only to the ‘family’ of individuals who came together and united in the creation of the art work. This unifying process, necessary to the creation of his art, was also an example of a way to heal unnecessary and artificial divisions.
At the time of his premature death in 1994, Boetti was working on perhaps the most ambitious and radical of all his creations - a work he had been told would be impossible to produce. He proposed to fund historians from all over the world to come together to write a single book on world history that could subsequently be used in all the world’s schools. When informed of the impossible nature of this task, Boetti responded that this did not concern him, his responsibility as an artist, he maintained, was ultimately to imagine and to
dream the impossible. Today, in a world of instantaneous globalised information, of Google and Wikipedia, but where fundamentalist and revisionist thought are still taught in schools, Boetti’s impossible vision seems both prophetic and as far away as ever.
One of the works of which we are most proud: imposing, with a mysterious beauty, a conceptual sophistication, and a talent for invention that can only arouse wonder and admiration. A large slice of blue sky, traversed by significant white commas, in the guise of a reading system. Boetti was indeed one of the greatest Italian artists: for us, the impact of his world was not immediate, but the result of much meditation. We wanted, passionately, to understand in depth his complex, multiform, multifaceted artistic expression. We sensed his universe and the originality of his creative talent after seeing a wonderful exhibition of his work in Rome at the end of the 1980s/early 1990s. I also recall, with much emotion, the film of a long interview with Boetti, and his answers which were always so simple yet acute, so pervaded by a sort of melancholy, perhaps because he would truly have liked "to embrace" mentally the whole world, to transform it into extraordinary works. I came out of the exhibition with a sense of unease: how great this artist was, and how had I not realised this earlier? The other one of us was silently reflecting, like me. Something strange for me: an artist who makes me fall silent because he has unsettled me. But I think that it was on this occasion that our instinct began to work on opening our minds towards the new horizon of Boetti. An extraordinary horizon, which has had a great influence on many artists of younger generations, including the present. A highly active imagination, a talent for inventing, connecting, reinventing, reinterpreting, and of an originality, an intellectual depth, an expressive quality entirely out of the ordinary. Alighiero Boetti transmitted to us a new way of thinking and of confronting ourselves with the work and, above all, the artist. The latter is the project's protagonist, the "manager of the invention": after the idea, for all the rest, it is he who decides how it will be realised, and by whom (also leaving, however, room for individual creativity). A new window that opens onto our small universe of collectors, to enrich us with fresh points of view.
I sei sensi (The six senses), executed in blue ballpoint pen on card, were a wonderful acquisition for us, which has also made a great impact. In the first six panels (equating the commas with the corresponding letters of the alphabet), the following verbs can be read: vedere, gustare, pensare, odorare, udire, toccare (to see, to taste, to think, to smell, to hear, to touch).
The five remaining panels have no writing: a blue space awaiting the discovery, in the future, of new senses developed by humanity. This work represents one of the artist's key-ideas in the way of sensibility and knowledge. An ingenious work that has given us a great deal, and which will remain always in our minds.