You might be forgiven for considering that many commercial gallery spaces look the same, however the perfect antidote might be a venture down to Tornabuoni Art in Paris. Like many Parisian galleries, it has perfected the art of hiding itself in plan sight. This one in particular can be found in the Passage de Retz courtyard within the Marais district, a few steps away from the National Archives and the Centre Pompidou. A cobbled courtyard leads us to a series of compelling art spaces; in the case of Tornabuoni Art, entering the building cases the traditional vast white cube space of the gallery to unfold, with its own peculiarities nonetheless – a winding metal staircase, a glasshouse glimpse of the sky, and a small garden, oddly intimate in proportion to the momentous space. There, I discover and rediscover Alghiero Boetti, and the shifting, exacting, myriad aspects of his work. Tornabuoni has a 20-year relationship with the Italian artist and it clearly shows: this exhibition presents itself as one of the most impressive retrospectives put together by a commercial gallery, drawing upon a previous exhibition at Tornabuoni London, and building up to a major exhibition at the Fondazione Cini during the Venice Biennale.
Alighiero Boetti was an Italian conceptual artist whose legacy is complex and multifaceted. His initial allegiance was with the Arte Povera movement, a group which attempted to address and deconstruct the art world’s obsession with costly, inaccessible materials by relying on objects considered “poor” from a material viewpoint, or unconventional, with simple, everyday objects and concepts. It encompassed the idea that art was part of life and nature, intertwining into the everyday. This definition is most likely to change in relation to the major artists who became part of the movement, such as Jannis Kounellis, who passed away recently, or Giovanni Anselmo. Boetti started to delve into Arte Povera with a variety of “unconventional” industrial materials, while also focusing on creating monumental works on paper from the simplest materials. However, this part is not quite explored in the exhibition, privileging what Boetti did after distancing himself from the movement while keeping some of its key values and aims. Mettere al mondo il mondo, 1972-73, a work using a blue ballpoint on paper laid onto canvas (below), creates a stunning example you get lost into within the display. What comes out of this is the sheer diligence and discipline in Boetti’s work, led by a concept which was then executed by others (in this case, friends and family), and rife with codes and puzzles centred around the alphabet.
The fact that the exhibitions is classified by different works and mediums rather than a strict chronology allows for several small pocket displays to wander around before visiting the more monumental rooms. One of these includes a series of “Postal Works” (Lavoro postale (Permutazione), 1989, below) consisting of enveloppes with postage that Boetti has sent to various friends and family repetitively, with variations in writing that create a strange pattern as they are displayed side by side, creating art out of everyday habit and process.
The most visually iconic example of Boetti’s works are his embroidered world maps, and this exhibition definitely does not disappoint. A vast selection of them are brought together, allowing for a contemplative insight into the way the maps reflect political change across the globe in a collaborative embroidery process, carried out of 500 Pakistan and Afghanistan artisans over a period of several decades from 1971 to 1994. Their lo-fi, artisanal quality emphasizes the “arte povera” ideas of simplicity that Boetti hung onto but also capture the human, intimate side of this mapping in the face of vast geopolitical changes beyond a single individual’s control.
Surprisingly, however, the maps are not neccessarily the main focus of the exhibition – or rather, their familiarity comes as a visual comfort or reminder, rather than a first shock-encounter. For me, this shock encounter occurs in front of Tutto 1992-94 (below) an immense embroidered, multicolour accumulation of shapes, objects merged into a dizzying tapestry.This effect is only strenthened by the light spilling in from the overhead windows, giving the impression the work is glowing from within.
Venturing upstairs in a spiral metal staircase, both oddly charming and out of place, pursues this encounter with a series of embroideries combining basics colours, letters or numbers to create a coded, crypic patchwork in which phrases and proverbs in Italian can sometimes be deciphered (Alighiero Boetti, Untitled, 1984 ca., marker pen on lithographic print, below). They draw the eye as beautiful material objects as well as conceptual objects of design used by Boetti in an attempt to classify and catalogue the world, an exploration of the gap existing between design and execution with its beautiful flaws, changes and perumutations. This exhibition allows for a quiet breathing space to come to terms with Boetti’s work and grasp its enduring significance. More than anything, it reminds us that outside of the often intimidating and confusing lingo surrounding conceptual art is a simple aim through simple means: to connect collective ideas and emotions like the many pieces of a patchwork embroidery.