'Knowing of innumerable events that occur without our involvement or understanding, due to pure spatio-temporal impossibility, has led me to produce the Lampada annuale as a theoretical-abstract expression of one of the infinite possible events, an expression not of the event itself, but of the idea of the event'
(Alighiero Boetti, 'The Galleria Christian Stein, 1967', in Alighiero & Boetti, exh. cat. Naples, 2009, p. 165)
A major early work that serves as one of the foundation stones of Alighiero Boetti's entire oeuvre, Lampada annuale (Annual Lamp) is an extremely simple and elegant encapsulation of an idealised meeting point between space, time and human thought or expectation. First made in 1966 for the artist's first solo show at the Galleria Christian Stein in Turin, it is a work that stems from the height of the 'Conceptual' period in art and of Boetti's own pioneering interest in this field, and it contains within it many of the ideas and themes that would drive and determine his art throughout the rest of his life. This work is one of only three further Lampada annuale that Boetti made one year later in 1967. In addition to the 1966 Lampada annuale in the Galleria Civica d'arte Moderna e Contemporanea, Turin and the two other Lampade of 1967, one of which is in the Berardo Collection in the Centro Cultural de Belém, Lisbon, this work is one of only four examples in total that Boetti made.
A deliberately non-descript and anonymous looking object, this deceptively simple, self-standing work comprises solely of a large light bulb surrounded by reflective metal and encased in a dark blue, lacquered wooden box with its top sealed with a pane of glass. Minimalistic in form, it asserts itself in the gallery space as if it were a simple piece of scientific apparatus left over from an unknown experiment. Due to a complex clockwork switch mechanism hidden within this dark blue box however, the bulb within is set to illuminate only once a year at a random moment determined solely by the mechanism, and for a duration of only eleven seconds. Once the viewer is made aware of this, their expectation for the unlikely potential for this object to suddenly illuminate in their presence bestows its apparent ordinariness with a peculiar, almost magical aura, presence and sense of possibility.
In addition, the simple vertical standing box, with its encased light, serves as a metaphor of containment and limitation and, through the possibility of its regulated but unpredictable illumination, as a kind of mechanical mirror to the viewer themselves, making them aware, though the unlikeliness of their witnessing the event, of their own physical, spatial and temporal limitations. It was this 'factor of the unforeseen' about this work, Boetti said at this time, that 'was of use to me', for its 'isolating from "measurable and organized time" the sensorial perception of the light, which as a result, took on a relative autonomy.' (Alighiero Boetti, 'Intervento' Bit vol 1, no. 4 July 1967, pp. 9-10) In other words, this solitary self-standing light-box, even when it is not lit, introduces both the concept of time as a confining element of experience and encourages, through the hidden factor of its random illumination, a sense of the possibility of transcending these earthly limits. It is in this respect that Lampada annual anticipates not just Boetti's later use of temporal systems such as dates, calendars and postage stamps towards similar ends, but also the more meditative and anthropomorphic use of the light bulb as a metaphor for the fleeting momentary nature of human life as employed in the 1990s to such poetic effect by Felix Gonzalez-Torres for example.
Boetti's decision to allow the bulb of Lampada annuale to light up for a duration of eleven seconds also reinforces this sense of the potential for transcendence in the work while also introducing a personal sense of authorship into the work. The number eleven was highly important to Boetti being both his favourite number and one which, with its double or twinning nature, he personally identified with. The number 'eleven' was deemed by Boetti to be both a magical and a doubling number because it doubled the number '1' into a single number thus asserting itself as both a multiple and a singular entity. In this, it is a numerical manifestation of the system Boetti was later to devise of ordine e disordine (order and disorder). In lasting for eleven seconds, therefore, the bulb is illuminated for both a fixed, singular period of time, and also, it is implied, a potentially open-ended moment too. This play between fixed and open-ended time is central to the work, which of course also plays with the fixed duration of the potential illumination and the open-ended nature of the period of expectation in the viewer's mind. 'Time' as Boetti once said, 'is a fundamental, it's the principal factor in everything' and was to become from Lampada annuale onwards, an integral part in the creation of most of Boetti's works. 'Dates and postage stamps and squares' he said 'are always a management of time that is the sole truly magical thing there is, incredibly elastic. Everyone has his own time'. (Alighiero Boetti, quoted in Alighiero & Boetti, exh. cat., Naples 2009, p. 215)
Drawing on the simple, minimalist language of conceptual art that, in the years 1966 and 1967, seemed overnight to pervade and determine the ideal form for most of the avant-garde art of the period, Boetti has in Lampada annuale infused this visual language with a poetic sense of mystery and potential. 'I've never been interested in the object' Boetti said, 'in fact, the Lampada annuale exhibited by Stein in 1967, is as anonymous as possible. What's more, I even painted it dark blue.' (Alighiero Boetti, quoted in 'Alighiero Boetti' in Interview with Mirella Bandini, 1973,' in Alighiero & Boetti, exh. cat., Naples, 2009, p. 168). Responding in some respects to Michelangelo Pistoletto's concept of the Minus Object in Lampada annuale, Boetti has used the formal language of Minimalist art, to create, what is in effect an ephemeral or 'objectless' object. Responding to a tradition of using light in contemporary Italian art that ranges from Fontana and Vedova's use of neon in the 1950s, through to the pioneering experiments of fellow late-'60s artists, Mario Merz and Pier Paulo Calzolari for example, the 'hidden' light of Lampada annuale offers a clear paradox. In one respect it is very clearly and very demonstrably a physical object occupying the same world, time and space as the viewer, but in another, the true (illuminated) and functioning form of the work, exists, almost always, outside of the time and space of the viewer and only in their imagination, expectation, or thought of it.
This notion of infusing the simple object with the wider potential of thought and the defining of his work within a temporal, as well as a physical and spatial dimension is a central feature of Boetti's aesthetic and one that appears to have first been initiated by Lampada annuale. In addition, the conceptual idea of a work existing or only being completed in the mind or thought of the viewer extends this distinctly singular object into an essentially open-ended form. From its simple box structure with its implied potential for illumination it extends to become a work whose potential is framed only by the seemingly unlimited dimension of man's imagination, and it is this that establishes Lampada annuale as perhaps the first key stone upon which rest of Boetti's art was built. 'There are five senses,' Boetti said, 'the sixth is thought; that is man's most remarkable possession, something that has nothing to do with nature. So, if I have to say what has stirred the greatest emotions in my life, I must confess it has not been nature. A butterfly or a sunset may be beautiful but I believe the greatest emotions are experienced by listening to Mozart or reading a poem, because they contain a thought made of a thousand coincidences, synchronisms and almost biological memories, perhaps from ancient times when we were something else and were maybe not even on this Earth. When we were perhaps, closer to the gods.' (Alighiero Boetti Alighiero & Boetti, exh. cat., Naples 2009, p. 264). RB