Alighiero Boetti: MUSEO NACIONAL CENTRO DE ARTE REINA SOFIA, MADRID
Lovatt, Anna, Artforum International
IN 1968, to promote his solo exhibition at Milan's Galleria de Nieubourg, Alighiero Boetti plastered a curious poster on walls across the city. It showed two men, one standing and facing the viewer and the other with his legs locked around the first man's waist, hanging upside down and facing away. This image had been appropriated from occultist Eliphas Levi's Histoire de la Magie of I860, but Boetti had superimposed his own features on the visible face. Titled Shaman/Showman, the poster simultaneously evoked a playing card and a tarot card, suggesting a form of game that had less to do with entertainment than with uncertainty and risk. Boetti had a famous affinity for flags, and here he came up with a heraldic representation of his own preoccupations--not only his fascination with mirroring and inversion but also his interest in the tactical deployment of gamesmanship and contingency. Taking up the latter concern as a curatorial thematic, organizers Lynne Cooke of the Reina Sofia, Mark Godfrey of Tate Modern in London, and Christian Rattemeyer of the Museum of Modern Art in New York conceived this retrospective--Boetti's largest to date--as a game of chance in its own right.
With several points of entry, an enigmatic labeling system (wall texts were clustered together some distance from the works), and minimal didactic materials, the exhibition offered an experience that was puzzling at first. In an accompanying leaflet, the curators mapped out a "suggested itinerary" among the more than one hundred works on view, commencing with a room of sculptures produced in the mid- to late 1960s. Several of these had featured in Boetti's first solo show at Turin's Galleria Christian Stein in 1967, which utilized an assortment of banal industrial materials, including corrugated cardboard, PVC tubes, printed cloth, and electric lights, purchased from supply stores around the city. While Boettfs pragmatic deployment of such materials made him the archetypal Arte Povera artist, in later vears he would locate the roots of his sculptural practice not in the industrial landscape of postwar Turin but in a series of childhood games and playful gestures. Thus he likened Rotolo di cartone ondulato (Roll of Corrugated Cardboard), 1966, to a coiled tape measure pushed with a finger to create a tower, and Mazzo di tuhi (Cluster of Tubes), 1966, to a bundle of pencils balanced on end. At the Reina Sofia, these ludic architectonic structures were juxtaposed with the deadpan wordplay of Boetti's early text pieces. Two red glass-fronted boxes inscribed with the words ping and l'ONG were mounted on either side of a doorway, ticking incessantly as a hidden mechanism caused them to light up alternately (Ping Pong, 1966). The infantile, onomatopoeic words were mechanized, while the physical act of turning the head in time with the light was emphasized, making the spectator into a comic figure, a Bergsonian automaton. Viewing the work, one became acutely aware of the synchronized structure of binocular vision, as one's gaze ricocheted from side to side, unable to hold both boxes in focus at once.
In the merging of two ocular images into unitary vision, we see again Boetti's fascination with the symmetry of the body and the notion of the double. He proposed that human existence was based on a series of binary models, and during the late 1960s and early '70s elaborated this idea in a number of self-portraits that were brought together in the exhibition. Shaman/Shoivman was displayed alongside Strumento musicale (Musical Instrument), 1970, a photograph of the artist holding a double-necked banjo, and Gemelli (Twins), 1968, the iconic photomontage in which he appears to be holding hands with his identical twin. However, for Boetti the dual, or split, subject is not locked in hermetic self-communion; instead, the individual is shown to be rooted in the collective. …