‘A word changes into a sign, into a compilation of commas which means something. You see, that is a rule’, Boetti observed. ‘One of my biro works was called Seguire il filo del discorso (following the thread of the conversation) You follow the thread of these commas. To follow the thread of a conversation is tautology, and quite apart from the rule, there is the structure of the transformation of the word into a sign. This is what you must make visible, you must render the comma visible as something that is not stable, that is unstable, and these small white points stand on a background hatched by another hand’ (Alighiero Boetti cited in Alighiero Boetti. Mettere al mondo il mondo exh. cat. Frankfurt 1998, p. 63).
Asserting themselves in the human imagination like magical constellations set within a sequence of vast, fluctuating colourful fields of energy and endeavour, Boetti’s biro works are ‘concentrates of time’. Seemingly both empty and full at the same time, they are works that ‘convey’, the artist said, ‘a physical impression of extended, immense time.’ (Alighiero Boetti quoted in Alighiero Boetti. Mettere al mondo il mondo exh. cat. Frankfurt 1998, p. 59)
This comparatively rare four-colour example executed in 1980 comprises of four separate hand-crafted monochrome biro panels each rendered in one of the main commercially available biro colours - red, black, green and blue. Together these panels combine to create single, unified picture that, through a coded system of cyphers self-reflexively asserts its own title and date: ‘One’, ‘Nine’, ‘Eight’, ‘Zero’.
This title/date is conveyed through a sequence of commas or apostrophes laid out against the coloured grounds in a systemised grid that corresponds to the letters of the Latin alphabet arranged vertically at the side of the work. Vague, enigmatic and conventionally indicative of the absences, pauses and empty spaces that exist between the letters of most West European languages, these punctuation marks here take part in a coded linguistic system that spells out (left-to-right) the words, ‘uno, nove, otto, zero’ (1,9,8,0).
Though monochrome, each of the four hand-drawn colour fields is also similarly indicative of a paradoxical state of stasis and flux, emptiness and fullness. Each monochrome panel has been painstakingly and individually worked by one of Boetti’s collaborators in a unique hand-crafted style so that its seemingly blank surface has been filled with colour. According to instructions from Boetti that allowed for and indeed actively encouraged the variation of an individual style in the long, painstaking process of cross-hatching, each coloured panel has consequently been ‘filled in’ by a different hand and making use of a different style. Indicative of the process of collaboration and of the unified diversity that such collaboration brings about, the resultant four-part picture becomes, in this way, a sumptuous visual manifestation, in both space and time, of the unique set of rules by which the work has come into being. Indeed, as Boetti said of these works: ‘All that is important is the rule. Anyone who does not know it, will never recognise the prevailing order in things, just as somebody who does not know the order of the stars will always see confusion where an astronomer has a very clear view of things.’ (Boetti quoted in ibid, p. 311.)
Boetti’s comparison of these works with the stars in this context is revealing. Looking to some extent like constellations, these playful, tautological and often, as here, self-reflecting monochromatic pictures are open, self-defining images that are simultaneously full of apparent emptiness and meaning, anchored to and around a simple code. As the typically self-reflexive title of this work - Uno, Nove, Otto, Zero - indicates, such works are spatial and temporal extensions of what Ferdinand Saussure famously identified as the gap between the ‘signifier and the signified’, into a beautiful and poetic pictorial expression of a fixed system and perpetual flux.