Alighiero Boetti: Game Plan (Reina Sofia, Madrid)

Thomas Calvocoressi travels to Madrid to see woven masterworks. The exhibition has just transferred to Tate Modern in London.

In 1971, the Italian artist Alighiero Boetti set foot on Afghan soil for the first time. It was the culmination of his growing fascination with faraway cultures and how they could participate in his work. Perhaps Boetti didn't intend his trip to be anything other than a fulfilment of a hippie wanderlust; but it became the beginning of a lifelong love affair with the country, shaping much of his best-known work - in particular the Mappa, his series of large, intricately woven maps. Boetti opened, and stayed regularly in, a small hotel in Kabul, which he named the One Hotel, a base from which he planned many of his works and did business - via middlemen - with the craftswomen whose identities would become so interwoven with Boetti's own.

In the extensive retrospective of Boetti at the Reina Sofía in Madrid - occupying an entire floor of the grand former hospital, if anything it's little too vast - these maps are pivotal. But Boetti's origins as an artist lie in the Italian arte povera movement and his subsequent rejection of it. Early pieces show a characteristic playfulness and humour as well as the use of lowly, workaday materials. Informed by his industrial home town, Turin, where he was born in 1940, he creates pieces that become far more than a sum of their simple parts: a cylindrical tower that's made of rolled-up cardboard but looks like turned wood; a metal cube containing zigzagging shelves of stripy municipal deckchair fabric; grouped-together bundles of coloured kindling wood or plastic tubing; and Colonna (1968), a striated classical column that looks like it's hewn from rough marble but is made up of thousands of glued-together paper doilies - a single-finger salute at the hushed world of Italian design.

In 1969, Boetti rejected the arte povera label and became interested in exploring his identity, reconfiguring himself as the twins Alighiero e Boetti (Alighiero and Boetti). Much of his work from this period reimagines the self-portrait - two brass commemorative plaques display the dates 2040 (100 years after his birth) and 2023 (poignantly, the projected year of his death: he died in 1994). Surprising in their delicate beauty are his 1969 self-portrait Xeroxes: his face a faint image on the paper, hands spelling out the title, Autoritratto, these ghostly images seem to owe something to the celebrated shroud of Boetti's birthplace.

Subsequent rooms are arranged thematically, much of the work reflecting Boetti's interest in travel and war zones. In the time-honoured tradition of the artist's atelier, he explores the concept of the artist as conceiver but not ultimate creator, giving clear instructions to craftspeople or artists - whether weaving women in Kabul or anonymous jobbing student artists. He creates ordered, intricate patterns only to revel in these patterns being broken, either intentionally or by miscommunication.

His 1980s Order and Disorder pieces are great examples of both this chaos within pattern and his forays into Afghan craft. Made of multicoloured squares of embroidery, each letter is picked out in a different colour chosen by the weaver. Every now and again, the colour of thread will have run out or a spelling mistake has been made. While meticulous in his instructions, once out of his hands it seems Boetti loved surrendering his work to chance and error, the fallibility of the weaver intrinsically important to the final piece.

To my mind the most wonderful room contains Boetti's biro works, including Putting the World into the World (1973-75) and The Six Senses (1974-75) - and the humble ballpoint pen is not what first springs to mind on entering. Hung on all four walls of a large room in Reina Sofía, these are huge expanses of deep, rich blues and greens with gradations and patterns within them. They recall a stormy ocean or an inky night sky and are punctuated - literally - by white commas, which encode signature Boetti words. They also have a tapestry-like appearance. In fact, they're sheets of minutely scrawled coloured biro: each section executed to a set of instructions by a nameless student whose fingerprints are all over it. Each one is different but all are unified by Boetti's vision.

In a work from another series, entitled Aerei, Boetti takes children's book drawings of many different types of plane and scatters them on blue-ink backgrounds. They are skies crammed full of aircraft - multiplying like viruses, showing order and chaos, speed and stillness, at once exhilarating and terrifying - a boundless world above ground in contrast to his ordered world maps below.

So back to Afghanistan and the Mappa pieces. Each one depicts a map of the world; each country consists of its respective national flag woven across it. Boetti would prepare the templates in Italy using up-to-date borders and flags but everything from thereon in was in the hands of the Afghan weavers and each piece would take up to five years to complete. They are exquisite pieces of craftsmanship and collaborative art as well as a geopolitical documentary of the changing world order from the middle of the cold war until the fall of communism. In the final map, the red Soviet bloc is suddenly peeled away to reveal many different new nations. Most remarkable is the colour of the sea. In most pieces, the weavers have rendered the oceanic expanse in hues of blue but now and again there is green, even pink. Living in a landlocked country, these were women who had perhaps never seen the sea; their choice of thread colour is both utterly pragmatic and wonderfully unruly.

“Alighiero Boetti: Game Plan" is at Tate Modern until 27 May 2012

Thomas Calvocoressi is Chief Sub (Digital) at the New Statesman and writes about visual arts for the magazine.

This article first appeared in the 13 February 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Boris vs Ken

FADEL SENNA/AFP/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism