Alighiero Boetti at Tate Modern

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Making art from “upcycled” materials and textiles may be very fashionable now, but it’s been around for a while, as a new exhibition at Tate Modern shows.

Alghiero Boetti was born in Turin in 1940, and his first exhibitions featured many of the materials from the industries in the city – car paint from the Fiat plant, a plexiglass cube filled with wonderful contrasting textures of wood offcuts, plastic piping, styrofoam packing, fibreglass and corrugated cardboard. There’s even a classical fluted column made from cake doilies stacked on a metal pole!

But it was when he started taking an interest in travel and geopolitics that textiles came to the fore. After the Six Day War in the Middle East in 1967, he asked his wife to embroider the shapes of the territories occupied by Israel. He also coloured in a school map so that each country was represented by its flag, and took it to Afghanistan, where he commissioned local craftswomen to embroider a larger version. This was the first of his maps, which was done in Bokhara stitch, a very dense but time-consuming couching.

There’s a whole room of these embroidered maps made between 1971 and 1994, and it’s fascinating to see the changes over the years. Early maps used the Mercator projection, where Greenland is the same size as Africa, before switching to a Robinson projection. You can also track political shifts, as the flag of Portugal was replaced by Angola in 1983, and the last map from 1994 loses a great block of red as the former USSR is broken up into a collection of independent states.

The embroidery canvases were designed in Italy and sent to Afghanistan (and later Pakistan) to be embroidered, but Boetti often left gaps for the Afghans to include their own messages, so the borders juxtapose Italian texts with Persian messages about exile, composed by Afghan refugees in Pakistan.

The refugees also wove 50 kilims, some of which are on display. The pattern of these kilims is based on a grid of 100 squares, each of which is also subdivided into 100 squares, or pixels. The corner square starts off as one white pixel and 99 black pixels; the next one is two black pixels and 98 white pixels; the next one is three white pixels and 97 black pixels. So as the number of pixels follows a progression, the colours alternate.

As well as embroidery, Boetti explored lots of other concepts, including postal works using different combinations and patterns of stamps, and a lamp that lights up at random for 11 seconds a year (which didn’t occur during my visit!).

I particularly loved his works produced using biro pens, where individual students covered large sheets of paper with tiny blue strokes of biro. Even though they were all using the same tool, the different styles of mark making are very apparent, punctuated by white commas that encode various phrases. The overall effect reminded me of Japanese indigo dyeing.

The final room is a riot of colour, with three large embroideries called Tutto (Everything). Boetti cut out lots of images from magazines and newspapers and laid them out on canvas so that they all fitted together, then traced around them before sending them off to be embroidered.

There were lots of ideas in this exhibition – about the role of the artist being to explore inefficiency and wasting time, about how artists are expected to be private creators and at the same time public showmen producing spectacle, about creating a new world from pre-existing materials.

Indeed, the final exhibit of Boetti’s bronze self portrait on the balcony shows the artist spraying water onto his head, which conceals a heating mechanism, causing the water to turn to steam and evaporate. As the exhibition guide notes, “he shows himself as a thinker with so many ideas that he needs to cool himself down”.

Alghiero Boetti: Game Plan is at Tate Modern until 27 May 2012.

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