This card, Mappa (Map) by Alighiero Boetti, was sent in the last month; by me to my youngest child. I attended the Documenta13 art festival in Kassel, Germany, and like the good father that I am, sent postcards from Germany to my children. Obviously I am the kind of person for whom objects and images can be markers for important memories. I’ve no idea if my kids will turn out the same, but a postcard, for me, is a way of triggering those important mnemonics.
The card was purchased at the temporary bookshop in the Friedrichsplatz, the central square of Kassel, in front of the Fridericianum, the central exhibition venue for Documenta (which spreads across the whole city), where Mappa was one of the key exhibits. Documenta, which happens only every 5 years (this is the third that I have attended, missing 2007 – no money – and 1992 – no confidence), can be a daunting experience, not only for the visitor, but also for the curator, where the temptation is to represent overwhelming complexity with a counter of similar overwhelming complexity.
However, # 13, curated by Carolyn Christov-Bakargiev was curated very carefully and accurately to negate that tendency, linking around a series of interlocking concepts and location, contextualised by another layer of interlocking art works and artists, a vibrant though map of geography, artist, time and artifact. Quite brilliant, with an overarching limpid ambiguity that answered the obscure and obscured the obvious.
One of the key works was Boetti’s Mappa. Alighiero Boetti, better known as Alighiero e Boetti (‘Alighiero and Boetti’), was an Italian artist, part of the Arte Povera movement. Mappa was created to be part of Documenta 5, (one of several that Boetti created through his career) but was never exhibited, and the letters between Boetti and contemporary art eminence grise, Harald Szeeman, the curator of Documenta 5, formed part of its exhibition. Boetti had had these tapestry flags/maps made in Kabul, where he was intermittently resident during the city’s all too brief golden age in the 1970’s. An artist interested in concepts around chance and randomness, laziness and the non-production of work, and enjoying the culture and relaxed atmosphere of ‘70’s Kabul, he opened a guest house in Kabul, The One Hotel; and this too in Documenta 13 was the subject of an forensic photographic investigation by Californian artist Mario Garcia Torres (Have You Ever seen The Snow? 2010).
Boetti died of cancer in 1994, and like many creative people who die young and unexpectedly has become a subject of cultish mystery; and has a major retrospective at MoMA in New York.
The Mappa’s were collaborative works, produced by Afghan artisans, entirely within the precepts of Arte Povera; the One Hotel is a lost building in a city destroyed by 30 years of war: Afghanistan, war, art, destruction, the world, time, work, leisure and hospitality all circulate through this work, with its geographical source adding layers of poignancy, amplified in a material feedback loop through the rest of the exhibition. The absence of the artist, and the investigation of his location in vanished Kabul only adds further layers of resonance.
It’s a wonderful example of how, as this blog post too begins to break down, that sometimes art objects can create a thought dialogue that cannot be best expressed using words; like the resonating quantum particles of Prof Anton Zeilinger (in the next room to Mappa) art connects and entangles reality in ways that simultaneously entirely unpredictable and completely personal.
In the sense of the personal mnemonic, Boetti’s High Altitude Skies (1988) was the front cover image of the Swiss art magazine Parkett (#24) in 1990. When I started work in contemporary art in 1990, this magazine was one of the first objects I encountered, as I remember, on my first day. It’s book-like design, bilingual text and formal obscurity deeply intimidated me; I felt that I had stumbled into a world that would never make sense, that would always remain oblique and in a language that I could never understand. I declined the offer of a trip to Kassel for Documenta 9, and buried myself in the Middle Ages, a familiar world that I knew well. What I did not know 20 years ago, and what I know now, and Beotti knew then, is that art is not about knowing the right answer but asking the right questions.