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

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How Notes on Blindness evokes sight loss on film

With audio and video uncannily synched, and its grainy super 8 footage, Notes on Blindness confuses the senses.

When the Australian-born theologian and university lecturer John Hull went blind in the early 1980s after decades of struggling with his sight, he started recording audio diaries. Excerpts from those tapes, interspersed with more recent interviews with John and his wife, Marilyn, make up most of the soundtrack of Notes on Blindness but it would be wrong to call this a documentary. What we can hear (the voices of John, Marilyn and their children) fits that description; what we see (actors lip-syncing to pre-recorded words, in an idea borrowed from The Arbor by Clio Barnard) does not. The directors Peter Middleton and James Spinney and the cinematographer Gerry Floyd provide a sensuous visual commentary to complement the spoken narrative. The result is like watching scenes from Terrence Malick movies while Radio 4 plays over the top.

The dislocation between the audio and the visual corresponds to John’s observation that blindness divorces people from their voices. What he needs is some kind of sonar or echolocation, like a bat’s or a submarine’s. The closest he gets is when he walks his young son to school. The deal is that John (played by Dan Renton Skinner) will call out “goodbye” when they part and the boy will continue to respond in kind until the volley of farewells is too faint for either of them to hear. Inclement weather provides another boost to the senses. Whenever he hears the thrumming of rain, John stands on the doorstep listening for the different bulletins that are sent to him from roof tiles, car bonnets, pavements and leaves. He says with characteristic eloquence that when it rains, “You are addressed by the world.”

If only it rained indoors, he could have the same comprehension of interior space. The film imagines what that might be like, staging a torrential downpour in his living room. But if water can report on the dim­ensions of his surroundings, it can also obliterate them. In a dream sequence set in a supermarket, the soft splash of wetness underfoot turns into a tsunami, separating him from his family. In those varying uses of water, the film expresses the polarity of choices. “Your consciousness is evacuated by blindness,” John says, almost marvelling at the thought. “It destroys or renews you.”

The mere existence of Notes on Blindness gives some indication of what the outcome was in this case. But any inspirational element is secondary and incremental. Communication between the blind and sighted is the goal. (“Cognition is beautiful,” says John. “It’s beautiful to know.”) The film-makers could have taken the route of Derek Jarman’s Blue, which showed nothing but an unwavering blue screen to evoke the dying director’s fading eyesight. Yet a featureless screen would have denied the visual texture of John’s blindness – his imagination, the dreams that trick him into believing he has retained his sight, the creeping dread as he realises his gallery of memories is fading.

A mosaic of crumbling Super 8 footage reflects that panic but the visual sensibility of this film is not usually so literal. More typical are the images that suggest opacity: John under a blanket, his face stippled by dots of light breaking through the stitches, or a child behind a curtain, feeling his way along a wall. Much of the cinematography is dimly lit, interrupted by sharply defined areas such as the parallelograms of sunlight through which John strides at work. With the exception of John and Marilyn, faces are obscured, which feels right: why should we be allowed to see their son (or the actor playing him) when John has never seen him? The only regrettable omission is God, who scarcely gets a look-in, which seems ­remiss in a film about a man of faith.

Throughout it all, there are those magnificent tapes. John’s perpetually interested voice is set against a patchwork of street noises, sounds of children at play and his daughter’s comical weather forecasts (“Tomorrow will be reasonably hot, reasonably cold, reasonably everything”), all wrapped in the fuzz of degraded 1980s analogue technology. The cassettes get almost as many close-ups as John; their revolving cogwheels stare out at us like eyes that hold the secrets of a world obscured from view. 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

This article first appeared in the 30 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit lies