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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"By now, there was no way back for me": the strange story of Bogdan Stashinsky

Serhii Plokhy’s The Man with the Poison Gun is a gripping, remarkable Cold War spy story.

On the morning of 12 August 1961, a few hours before the supreme leader of East Germany, Walter Ulbricht, announced the sealing of the border between East and West Berlin, a funeral took place for a four-month-old boy at the Rohrbeck Evangelical Cemetery in Dallgow. Numerous KGB agents and officers of the East German ministry of security were in attendance, but the boy’s parents were missing. Instead, Bogdan Stashinsky and Inge Pohl were preparing their imminent escape from Soviet-occupied territory and into the West. They had intended to flee the following day, but the funeral provided a moment of opportunity when their surveillance was relaxed. If they wanted to go, they had to go now.

“The KGB operatives present at the child’s funeral were puzzled by the parents’ absence,” a Soviet intelligence officer later wrote. “By the end of the day on 13 August 1961, it was clear that the Stashinskys had gone to the West. Everyone who knew what tasks the agent had carried out in Munich in 1957 and 1959, and what could happen if Stashinsky were to talk, was in shock.”

Those “tasks” were the state-sponsored assassinations of Lev Rebet and Stepan Bandera, two exiled leaders of the Ukrainian anti-communist movement who had been living in Munich. Stashinsky, one of the KGB’s top hitmen, and the focus of Serhii Plokhy’s gripping book, had been given the task of tracking and killing them with a custom-built gun that sprayed a lethal, yet undetectable poison. It was only after Stashinsky’s defection to the Central Intelligence Agency, and then to the West German security services, that the cause of Rebet and Bandera’s deaths was finally known.

For decades, the KGB denied any involvement in the assassinations, and the CIA has never been entirely sure about Stashinsky’s motives. Was he telling the truth when he confessed to being the assassin, or was he, as some still claim, a loyal agent, sent to spread disinformation and protect the true killer? Plokhy has now put to rest the many theories and speculations. With great clarity and compassion, and drawing from a trove of recently declassified files from CIA, KGB and Polish security archives, as well as interviews conducted with former heads of the South African police force, he chronicles one of the most curious espionage stories of the Cold War.

Stashinsky’s tale is worthy of John le Carré or Ian Fleming. Plokhy even reminds us that The Man With the Golden Gun, in which James Bond tries to assassinate his boss with a cyanide pistol after being brainwashed by the Soviets, was inspired by the Stashinsky story. But if spy novels zero in on a secret world – tradecraft, double agents, defections, and the moral fallout that comes from working in the shadows – Plokhy places this tale in the wider context of the Cold War and the relentless ideological battle between East and West.

The story of Stashinsky’s career as a triggerman for the KGB plays out against the backdrop of the fight for Ukrainian independence after the Second World War. He was a member of the underground resistance against the Soviet occupation, but was forced to become an informer for the secret police after his family was threatened. After he betrayed a resistance cell led by Ivan Laba, which had assassinated the communist author Yaroslav Halan, Stashinsky was ostracised by his family and was offered the choice of continuing his higher education, which he could no longer afford, or joining the secret police.

“It was [only] a proposal,” he said later, “but I had no alternative to accepting it and continuing to work for the NKVD. By now, there was no way back for me.” He received advanced training in Kyiv and Moscow for clandestine work in the West and became one of Moscow’s most prized assets. In 1957, after assassinating Rebet, he was awarded the
Order of the Red Banner, one of the oldest military decorations in the Soviet Union.

Plokhy’s book is about more than the dramas of undercover work; it is also an imaginative approach to the history of Cold War international relations. It is above all an affective tale about the relationship between individual autonomy and state power, and the crushing impact the police state had on populations living behind the Iron Curtain. Stashinsky isn’t someone of whom we should necessarily approve: he betrayed his comrades in the Ukrainian resistance, lied to his family about who he was and killed for a living. Yet we sympathise with him the more he, like so many others, turns into a defenceless pawn of the Communist Party high command, especially after he falls in love with his future wife, Inge.

One of the most insightful sections of Plokhy’s book converges on Stashinsky’s trial in West Germany in 1962 over the killings of Rebet and Bandera, and how he was given a reduced sentence because it was deemed that he had been an instrument of the Soviet state. The decision was influenced by German memories of collective brainwashing under the Third Reich. As one of the judges put it: “The accused was at the time in question a poor devil who acted automatically under pressure of commands and was misled and confused ideologically.”

What makes Plokhy’s book so alarmingly resonant today is how Russia still uses extrajudicial murder as a tool of foreign policy. In 2004 Viktor Yushchenko, the pro-Western future president of Ukraine, was poisoned with dioxin; two years later Aleksandr Litvinenko, the Russian secret service defector, unknowingly drank radioactive polonium at a hotel in London. The Russian journalist Anna Politkovskaya survived a poisoning in 2004 after drinking tea given to her by an Aeroflot flight attendant (she was murdered two years later). The collapse of the Soviet Union did not bring the end of the Russian threat (Putin, remember, is ex-KGB). As le Carré noted in a speech in the summer of 1990, “The Russian Bear is sick, the Bear is bankrupt, the Bear is frightened of his past, his present and his future. But the Bear is still armed to the teeth and very, very proud.”

The Man with the Poison Gun: a Cold War Spy Story by Serhii Plokhy is published by Oneworld (365pp, £18.99)

This article first appeared in the 12 January 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's revenge