Alighiero Boetti, Tate Modern, London

The star of Arte Povera is full of bright ideas in a show that winds its way through the human condition and its orderly creations, from postage stamps to vast embroideries

Halfway through Tate Modern's Alighiero Boetti show is a work that you will almost certainly never see, or at least not see in action. Called Lampada annuale (Annual Lamp), it consists of a mirror-lined black box or crate holding a single, outsized light bulb.

Boetti, who died of a brain tumour in 1994 at the age of 53, programmed this bulb to come on sporadically once a year for 11 seconds at a time. In any given year, you have a slightly better than one in three million chance of being near Lampada annuale when it springs to evanescent life. In the 59 days Boetti's exhibition is on at the Tate, these odds would shorten to around one in 500,000 – if the lamp were obliging enough to come on while it is in London, and in gallery opening hours. I don't know that I have ever looked at a work of art with such longing, or with such sure expectation of disappointment.

It is tempting to see this small story as a parable of Boetti's life. Born in Turin on 16 December 1940, he was fascinated by his own mortality: not, it would seem, by the fact that he would die so much as that the time between his birth and death would be measured out in man-made increments.

In 1971, five years after he made Lampada annuale, Boetti showed 16 DICEMBRE 2040 – 11 LUGLIO 2023 – a pair of wall-mounted brass plaques of the kind you see outside Italian doctors' offices, each bearing one of the titular dates. The first marked the centenary of the artist's birth, the second the date on which, measured by actuarial tables, it seemed most likely that he would die. Seen at the time they were made, the plaques must have had an air of tempting fate. Nearly 20 years after Boetti's early death, it is clear that they were.

The story that both these and the lamp tell – the one told, to some extent, by all of Boetti's work – is of heroic failure, particularly the artist's own. At the heart of their interest is man's need to think in metaphor, to control the world by naming and systematising it. For every thing there is its metaphorical double, including Boetti himself. From the mid-1960s, he took to referring to himself as Alighiero e Boetti – Alighiero and Boetti – as though there were two of him, shown side-by-side in photomontaged self-portraits called Gemelli (Twins). All kinds of metaphorical systems fascinated him: numbers, postage stamps, alphabets, dates, and, above all, maps.

If you only know one body of Boetti's work, then it is likely to be the Mappa series, given a vast room of its own in the Tate Modern show. From the early 1970s until shortly before his death, Boetti worked with Afghan weavers and weavers in exile to produce rug-sized embroidered maps of the world, each country picked out in the colours of its national flag. You can see the appeal for a man obsessed with metaphors: a globe represented as a rectangle, land masses by shapes, geopolitics by symbolic colours and patterns which changed as countries became independent or were occupied or embroiled in civil war.

So many systems, so much representation. And yet what strikes you about the Mappe is their imprecision, the way that human frailty inevitably wins out over the human drive to exactitude. In one map, the sea is unexpectedly coloured pink rather than blue. Landlocked Afghans had no tradition of mapping, certainly not of oceans. Having never seen the sea, they saw no good reason why it should be stitched in blue rather than pink, the latter dye being cheaper and more plentiful than the former. Boetti, reportedly, was delighted.

He was probably the most famous of the artists of Arte Povera, although he is also noted for having turned away from the movement. Like many well-known art-historical facts, this one is not entirely true. While Boetti may have stopped making work from trademark Povera materials such as bits of kindling (eg, Little Coloured Sticks, 1968), he none the less remained fascinated by the smallness of man; or, rather, by man's tragicomic refusal to admit to that smallness, his insistence on dealing with the world by scaling it down to the span of his own mind.

Boetti's materials may have changed, but his humanity did not. At the heart of what he saw as the great cosmic joke of being alive was a sense of his own mortality: that, in spite of what Warhol said, we are not each given 15 minutes of fame, but 11 seconds of light in a darkened gallery when no one is there to see it.


To 27 May (020-7887 8888)

Art choice

Enjoy the artistic freebies of our capital: there's a new fourth plinth sculpture in Trafalgar Square, by Scandinavian duo Michael Elmgreen and Ingar Dragset. A golden boy riding a rocking horse, its gently mocking subversion is worth a look. Then pop over to Tate Modern for a last chance to see Tacita Dean's take on the Turbine Hall, FILM (to 11 Mar).

Arts and Entertainment
Stewart Lee (Gavin Evans)


Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

Arts and Entertainment
Yaphett Kotto with Julius W Harris and Jane Seymour in 1973 Bond movie Live and Let Die

Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders
    Heston Blumenthal to cook up a spice odyssey for British astronaut manning the International Space Station

    UK's Major Tum to blast off on a spice odyssey

    Nothing but the best for British astronaut as chef Heston Blumenthal cooks up his rations
    John Harrison's 'longitude' clock sets new record - 300 years on

    ‘Longitude’ clock sets new record - 300 years on

    Greenwich horologists celebrate as it keeps to within a second of real time over a 100-day test
    Fears in the US of being outgunned in the vital propaganda wars by Russia, China - and even Isis - have prompted a rethink on overseas broadcasters

    Let the propaganda wars begin - again

    'Accurate, objective, comprehensive': that was Voice of America's creed, but now its masters want it to promote US policy, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Why Japan's incredible long-distance runners will never win the London Marathon

    Japan's incredible long-distance runners

    Every year, Japanese long-distance runners post some of the world's fastest times – yet, come next weekend, not a single elite competitor from the country will be at the London Marathon
    Why does Tom Drury remain the greatest writer you've never heard of?

    Tom Drury: The quiet American

    His debut was considered one of the finest novels of the past 50 years, and he is every bit the equal of his contemporaries, Jonathan Franzen, Dave Eggers and David Foster Wallace
    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    You should judge a person by how they peel a potato

    Dave Hax's domestic tips are reminiscent of George Orwell's tea routine. The world might need revolution, but we like to sweat the small stuff, says DJ Taylor
    Beige is back: The drab car colours of the 1970s are proving popular again

    Beige to the future

    Flares and flounce are back on catwalks but a revival in ’70s car paintjobs was a stack-heeled step too far – until now
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's dishes highlight the delicate essence of fresh cheeses

    Bill Granger cooks with fresh cheeses

    More delicate on the palate, milder, fresh cheeses can also be kinder to the waistline
    Aston Villa vs Liverpool: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful,' says veteran Shay Given

    Shay Given: 'This FA Cup run has been wonderful'

    The Villa keeper has been overlooked for a long time and has unhappy memories of the national stadium – but he is savouring his chance to play at Wembley
    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own - Michael Calvin

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    Timeless drama of Championship race in league of its own