Milan, Galleria Seno, Alighiero Boetti, 1999, n.p., illustrated
Napoli, Museo d'Arte Contemporanea Donna Regina, Alighiero e Boetti, 2009, p. 102, illustrated
Milan, Triennale Design Museum, Arte Povera, 2011
CLASSIFYING The Thousand Longest Rivers in the World was the official title of the project that occupied Boetti and his wife Anne-Marie Sauzeau-Boetti for the bulk of the 1970s. Originally inspired by Albert Hocheimer’s Novel of Big Rivers (published in Italy in 1956), their goal was to create a comprehensive ranking of rivers by length, using a wide array of data and relying on the assistance of several international institutions. By 1977, the pair had published a one thousand page book and six tapestries: a larger pair, which are now on display in the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Museum für Moderne Kunst in Frankfurt, and four smaller works, of which the present work is one. All of the pieces in the series are filled with horizontal rows of pixelated text in the font of Anne-Marie Sauzeau’s pin printer. However the tapestries themselves were hand-woven in Kabul, according to Boetti’s design, in traditional Afghan workshops.
I Mille Fiumi Più Lunghi del Mondo (Progetto) is, at its root, the product of Boetti’s belief that the world is characterised by order and disorder – ordine e disordine – and their relationship. The conception of the project is a reflection on the human compulsion to impose structure and order on the chaotic disorder of nature. In their laborious efforts conflating myriad sources and data discrepancies, Boetti and his wife deftly illuminate the futility of this task. Their systematic classification bears little relation to the tempestuous torrents of the world’s largest rivers.
However, this is not to say that Boetti intended to suffuse his work with a tone of contrast or tension. He was much more focussed on dualism and balance. Since the early 1970s he had been obsessed by ‘twinning’: the notion that each force has an equal reflecting force and rather than opposites that subsume each other, the pair might be considered complementary principles. It was this same fixation with ‘twinning’ that lead him to change his name to Alighiero e Boetti in the early 1970s (so that his identity might be grounded on dualistic principles), and to create such celebrated works as Ping Pong (1966) and, perhaps most pertinently, Twins (1968).
In keeping with the best of Boetti’s oeuvre, I Mille Fiumi Più Lunghi del Mondo (Progetto) is rich in philosophical backing. Much of Boetti’s understanding of ordine e disordine was based on Heraclitus’ concept of the world in flux. Heraclitus believed that the world was like a river: unfathomable disorder that might only be comprehended within the order of its outlined banks. According to Heraclitus, a river is the water itself, constantly flowing, infinitely changing, and eternally in flux: you can never step in the same river twice. This line of thought provides the perfect companion to I Mille Fiumi: it ridicules the classification while validating the art project and drilling directly into the absurdity of man’s attempts to project order on the unquantifiable chaos of nature.
As a scientific ranking, I Mille Fiumi Più Lunghi del Mondo (Progetto) had limited success, although some scientists still refer to Boetti’s list. However, as a project it was an unmitigated triumph that is now lauded as one of the most original and inspired moments of the artist’s oeuvre. Indeed, the rarity of the present work is matched by the strength of its poetic message: its virtuosic exploration of order and disorder recapitulates through the composition and intertwines with ideas of dualism and ‘twinning’. Complexity and clarity collide in I Mille Fiumi Più Lunghi del Mondo (Progetto) to create a superlative result.
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