Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

IDEAS MAN; A Retrospective of a Conceptual Pioneer Looks Inside a Mind Influenced by the Hippy Trail, Holy War and Heroin

Newspaper article The Evening Standard (London, England)

IDEAS MAN; A Retrospective of a Conceptual Pioneer Looks Inside a Mind Influenced by the Hippy Trail, Holy War and Heroin

Article excerpt

Byline: BEN LUKE


Tate Modern, SE1

ON TATE Modern's fourthfloor riverside terrace, overlooking the Millennium Bridge and St Paul's beyond, stands a thin bronze man, casually suited in that open-necked way. With his right hand, he holds a hose up high so that its gently trickling water lands on his head, which is heated from within to a temperature that immediately turns the drips to puffs of steam. The man is Italian artist Alighiero Boetti, and this is his final work, made in 1993, just before he died of cancer. Nicknamed My Brain is Smoking, this self-portrait, like many works in this huge retrospective, acts as a kind of manifesto.

As he tells us in other works in the show, Boetti, who was born in Turin in 1940, saw thought as a sixth sense, and the most vital element in the creation of art. He was a true conceptual artist, his head constantly burning with ideas, as the sculpture suggests, and in prioritising thought over everything else, he actually made very little of his art himself.

He might have professed that this was out of idleness, but the sheer volume and range at Tate Modern is testimony to an extremely active mind. Boetti emerges from this exhibition as a blueprint for many of today's artists in his riddlish conceptual works, and in the geopolitical outlook that took him to Guatemala and Ethiopia and, most significantly, led to a profound love affair with Afghanistan.

A linchpin of the Italian Arte Povera movement, he began his career in the mid-Sixties and had his first show in Turin in 1967, deliberately arranged to evoke the contents of a hardware store, which is largely reconstructed here.

While Tate Modern cannot replicate that original show's claustrophobic jumble, the room is nonetheless a lively, cluttered beginning, and quintessential Arte Povera, with everyday materials arranged in almost primal forms -- square tubes of asbestosconcrete arranged in a monumental stack, clusters of tindersticks gathered in cylinders and arranged in a circle, a large roll of cardboard pushed up in the middle to form a phallus.

Boetti quickly tired of Arte Povera; the visitor can take one of two routes through this show and his subsequent work. One offers a scholarly procession of rooms analysing his obsession with the role of the artist, renaming himself Alighiero e Boetti (Alighiero and Boetti), and exploring his obsession with systems and classification -- he made chessboards with unique coded symbols, painstakingly mapped out different patterns in pencil on graph paper, and created a book and tapestries detailing the world's 1,000 longest rivers.

The other route, far more fun, takes us into the heart of Boetti's Afghanistan journey. Like travellers on the hippy trail in the same era, he loved Afghanistan for its Sufi mysticism and ancient art and, of course, the drugs -- Boetti developed a heroin habit there. …

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