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).

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth McGovern as Cora, Countess of Grantham and Richard E Grant as Simon Bricker

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Art
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard, nicknamed by the press as 'Dirty Diana'

Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
The X Factor 2014 judges: Simon Cowell, Cheryl Cole, Mel B and Louis Walsh

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace was caught by a camera van driving 32mph over the speed limit

TV
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

    US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
    Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
    Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering