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 horses, cacti or numbers, 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 reflect 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 Aghanistan 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 - the Dodice forme dal 10 giugno 1967 - dramatically catalogues 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 has 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 Frdric Bruly Bouabr on the Ivory Coast in the late 1980s Boetti had been struck by a comment that Bouabr 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 his biro works, but 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 works - 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 globalised information and of Google and Wikipedia, but where fundamentalist and revisionist thought are still taught in schools, Boetti's impossible vision seems both prophetic and as necessary as ever.
This work is registered in the Archivio Boetti, Rome, under no. 6519.
'The categories actually hinder instead of fostering an understanding of the phenomena... One of the most obvious mistakes of our culture is the divisions it makes in the oneness and wholeness of the world with rigid classifications: like the animal, vegetable and mineral kingdom and so on. It's a mental category, a separation, which I feel obscures and veils all possibility of understanding things. In its pretence to explain, it only serves to nullify a broad scope of understanding things. So that's what we need to eliminate. We need to understand that ultimately there is only one mechanism of the world, and it develops through various processes and in different ways into every part of reality, whether it's a rock, a flower or something else... (order and disorder).
This principle which underpins all of Boetti's art from the late 1960s onwards - including the artist's own twinned identity of himself as Alighiero e Boetti (Alighiero and Boetti) - originated in the ancient thought of philosophers like Heraclitus, and is a central part of the philosophy underlying much Eastern thought, in particular that of Sufi mystics like Boetti's spiritual teacher, the poet Berang Ramazan. The principle asserts that, like a river, the world exists as a continuous and chaotic flow but maintains itself as a unity. Inherent within chaos is the principle of order and vice versa. Order and disorder permeate one another maintaining a constantly shifting balance. Like his Mappe or the Arazzi in which the separate countries of the world or the individual letters that form words, were shown to combine into a cohesive unity, the Tutti are embroidered representations of the world of objects as a self-organising composite of chaotic form.
Extensions of the Arazzi and the Mappe into the wider realm of 'everything', the origins of the Tutto lie most specifically in an early project Boetti created in 1967 entitled Pack. This work consisted solely of a bucket half-filled with cement which, when allowed to dry, subsequently cracked and separated into several different segments but still maintained a cohesive sense of unity. This basic conceptual sculpture, heavily reflecting the very material emphasis of the arte povera context within which Boetti was then working, was a clear and simple manifestation of the principle of ordine e disordine at work in the natural world. Its title Pack- referring to pack ice - was intended to emphasise the 'naturalness' of this phenomena and also to underline the universality of the organising principle that Boetti was pointing to. It was not until 1975 that Boetti created the first works entitled Tutto and not until 1982 that his first large scale Tutto embroidered pictures were made. Many of these first Tutto (all square in format) were also given the title Pack and these were the first embroidered Tutto to take the form by which the series is now known. Each one made use of a selected variety of intersecting shapes of 'all' the separate objects and things that make up the world, with each shape coloured, arbitrarily, by the Afghan women who wove them.
These skilled women, who Boetti had first employed to make his Arrazi and Mappe, worked according to a stencil-based pattern drawn out in biro by Boetti and his assistants in which a variety of objects was rendered in such a way that each overlapped directly with the other so as to fill the canvas with a myriad of form in the manner of a horror vacui. Boetti chose the various objects to be depicted from an extensive range of sources including encyclopaedias, schoolbooks, magazines, newspapers and other lexica. Such an approach ensured the wide range of motifs; but the degree of this range and its scope was always ultimately determined by Boetti himself with many stencils made of certain favourite motifs so that they could be reused in later Tutto designs. When the design was finished it was taken to Peshawar to be embroidered using a precise quantity of one hundred threads of different colour. The application of this colour was left up to the women doing the embroidery, the only stipulation being that they use all the colour so that overall an equal amount of colour was used in the finished whole. The result of this process is a visual overload of pictorial information that conveys a sense of each work being a slice of the myriad puzzle of infinite variety and detail that is the world. A cosmic soup comprising of an interconnecting sea of autonomous objects and figures these colour-drenched pictures hover between figurative recognisability and abstract pattern. Implicit within each work however is a discernable sense of an integral organisational structure, of the fact that the shape of each motif in the work has a determining effect on the ones next to it so that the entire field of the canvas is in fact a construction and not a random collage of form. This innate organising principle is something that ensures that the viewer becomes aware of the central ordering principle within this seeming chaotic flux of the whole and encourages them to view the world in the same unified and holistic way.
'There are some extraordinary things that happen in the mineral world, in the vegetable world and the animal world.' Boetti once pointed out. 'These worlds have been separated and ranked in hierarchical order, but I think that ultimately there is no hierarchy. We are always faced with the same thing, the same manifestation of a design in thingsand the fact is that when man enters things and natural phenomena enter human culture, then all the apparent antitheses collapse, all the hierarchies and separations that normally transform the world into a prison. There are, in short, some categories that, if they were eliminated, would enable us to attain a greater degree of understanding. The categories actually hinder instead of fostering an understanding of the phenomena... One of the most obvious mistakes of our culture is the divisions it makes in the oneness and wholeness of the world with rigid classifications: like the animal, vegetable and mineral kingdom and so on. It's a mental category, a separation, which I feel obscures and veils all possibility of understanding things. In its pretence to explain, it only serves to nullify a broad scope of understanding things. So that's what we need to eliminate. We need to understand that ultimately there is only one mechanism of the world, and it develops through various processes and in different ways into every part of reality, whether it's a rock, a flower or something else... We then need to perceive this oneness in things, instead of always dividing them into categories and classifications, and above all antitheses of the good/bad, black/white kind' (Alighiero Boetti , 'From Today to Tomorrow', 1988, in Alighiero e Boetti Bringing the World into the World, exh. cat., Naples, 2009, p. 209).