Anno 1984 is Boetti’s earliest and sweepingly monumental catalogue of global visual culture, as portrayed by the magazine covers of its time. Transcribed by hand from mechanical print into unique pencil, they archivise scientific and political developments alongside trends in design, leisure, sport and popular culture. The astonishingly detailed mosaic bears motifs both timeless and outdated, and upon close scrutiny continually yields new material. Testifying to the irrationalities of history-making, and the order and disorder inherent to communal narratives, Anno 1984 is a complex archival experiment beautifully expressing Boetti’s defining conceptual concerns.
Boetti’s earliest such works were monthly panels featuring eighteen drawn covers: October 1983, November 1983, and December 1983, the latter of which resides in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Following this quarterly triad, Anno 1984 represents the first 12-panel work of its kind ever created by Boetti, a model he reprised for Anno 1986 (Century Museum, Tokyo), Anno 1988, and finally Anno 1990. An historic exhibition at the Biennale de Lyon in 1993 brought each of these series together in a single space, recognising the important and rare monumentality of their combined typological project. Anno 1984 retains the distinction of being the largest work of its kind, however – its panels measure 100 by 150cm., whereas in subsequent years Boetti opted for the squared size of only 100 by 100cm.
In 1984, referring to the unique panels of 1983 Boetti said: “In that month, there were millions of images. Today, perhaps there are only a hundred. Then there will only remain this faded copy once coloured” (the artist quoted in: Exhibition, Ravenna, Pinacoteca Comunale, Alighiero & Boetti, 1984, p. 141). The ephemerality of imagery – now plentiful but with time perishable – is captured eloquently by the Anno works, whose tokenistic preservation of visual artefacts only reinforces the absence of their fuller original context. The inescapable whittling down of cultural material, comprising historical, fictional, scientific, and all other forms of knowledge, is cogently expressed by the diverse languages and subject matter represented on the magazine covers of Anno 1984. Governed by pure chance, but influenced by the structures and currents of power, the creation and deletion of images from our collective memory would have fascinated Boetti as embodying both predictability and chance. Mimicking this dynamic, Boetti instructed his studio assistants to purchase the magazines from local stores at random, characteristically diffusing authorial agency.
On certain covers, a marked coincidence of their subject matter with Boetti’s conceptual preoccupations suggests a not entirely arbitrary selection process. An intriguing example, the February issue of pM magazine satirically morphs a portrait of Vladimir Lenin into one of John Lennon over four frames. Its word-play relies on the homonym, whose linguistic coincidence perfectly encapsulates the interpretive confusion which Boetti plucked from systems of order. In 1971 he had penned the neologism Ononimo, a conflation of the words anonimo (anonymous) and omonimo (homonym) to express the paradoxical duality of his identity. From this period, he also delineated and then conjoined his first and last names: Alighiero e Boetti. On the cover of pM, the bizarre and satirical transfiguration from one political celebrity to another, separated by place and time, thereby cannily illustrates Boetti’s ideas on authorial multiplication. Undoubtedly he delighted equally in the global reach of the pun – seizing upon the relative untranslatability of personal names, its joke would have been (and is today) immediately apparent to a deeply heterogeneous audience.
Other cover designs, less intellectual but replete with play, sex appeal and eye-catching graphics, resonate with Pop’s hedonist embrace of mass visual culture. The conjunction of so many diverse communicative aesthetics brings forth a sense of plenty found only in the most ambitiously encyclopaedic works of art – be they visual or literary. Patience for the fruition of a work, and the concurrent deceleration of traditional timeframes for art production, defined a number of Boetti’s projects. He once remarked: “…I’m pleased that for certain embroideries I sometimes have to wait up to five years. Strangely I have the patience to wait for them, or rather I don’t wait for them, they arrive when they arrive” (the artist quoted in: Jean-Christophe Amman, Alighiero Boetti Catalogo Generale, Vol. I, Milan 2009, p. 98). Anno 1984 was similarly born of a lengthy timescale, building regularly over a calendar year in serialised monthly chapters. Its generation was both organic and mechanical; fleetingly intermittent and concertedly long-term. Taken as a whole, the twelve-panel Anno works stretching from 1984 to 1990 constitute a single catalogue rivalling the largest of Warhol’s or Rauschenberg’s multi-canvas environments, and the most extensively archival conceptual installations.
Moreover, unlike the serial reprography of Pop media like silkscreening, Anno 1984 and its sisters were drawn in pencil, as in Warhol's earlier newspaper pieces. Eschewing the anonymous emulation of mass reproduction, Anno 1984 deliberately transcribes images too quickly generated, multiplied, consumed and discarded into a format unequivocally resistant to trivialisation. The ‘patience’ invested in their production accumulates a personal resonance – rekindling Walter Benjamin’s ‘aura’ – entirely unlike that witnessed in Pop appropriations of news media. This vulnerable, subjective, and utterly human dimension was Boetti’s favoured and most pertinent source of disorder. Prefiguring contemporary models of the artist as curator, Anno 1984 brings together disparate imagery exemplifying the systems of organisation that struggle to contain the vibrant life within.