'Game Plan' is a well-chosen title for the current retrospective exhibition of works by Alighiero Boetti at Tate Modern. Alluding to both play and strategy, often with political or military connotations, the title neatly brings together various aspects of the artist's practice. Boetti playfully explored all kinds of systems, from the letters of the alphabet and punctuation marks to children's counting games, pattern and mark-making. The formal qualities of these works relate to minimal art of the time but with a difference; Boetti's work recalls the metal squares of Carl Andre, but the use of tissue paper to cover alternate iron squares or holes punched into wooden blocks also turns them into a chess board or a game based on dominoes. These works are both visually and intellectually stimulating while suggesting the active involvement of the viewer as a participant in play. In this way, Boetti both adopts the calm orderliness of Minimalism and disrupts it with something approaching Dadaesque irreverence. Indeed, the combination of order and disorder underlies his method, in which the dialogue between what may seem to be opposites successfully creates new forms.
The artist's 'Mappa' series, 1971-94, his best-known work, is an excellent example of this dialectic practice. The canvases were prepared in Italy and embroidered by Afghan women in their home country and in refugee camps in Peshawar, Pakistan. Maps cohere with the artist's interest in systems and order which are, at the same time, constantly changing. The instability of political regimes is manifestly made visible in the exhibition in which a number of these works are displayed together. Each country is embroidered with its flag, itself a configuration of shapes and colours. Thus, as regimes change, so do these flags together with the borders of the countries. The tactile warmth of embroidery demonstrates a lack of conviction in the map's authority, the handmade quality and colour of the works emphasising the artifice of these supposedly objective structures. Just as the borders of countries change, so the production of these works, of which there are over 200, crossed the Afghan border as the women making them became conflict refugees.
The origin of Boetti's map works is the Six Day War of June 1967. Boetti was struck by maps in newspapers of the time showing the new borders in the Middle East. His first response was Occupied Territories, 1969, a cross-stitch embroidery in which the landmass is detached from its region to highlight its new shape. The work has an unfinished look as the fabric is still on its circular wooden frame, suggesting that the threads can be undone or redone to change the borders. The subsequent 12 forms from June 10, 1967, 1971, in which maps of various countries around the world are engraved in outline on copper plates, have a greater sense of finish and polish. Their reflective surfaces physically make the viewer a participant, acting as a reminder of our responsibility/culpability as world citizens.
The map seemed to embody so much of what Conceptual Art was about: images and materials which related to scientific practices measuring time and space, and which emphasised their material factualness, belonging to the contemporary world. …