In 1993, on the occasion of the Sonsbeek exhibition in Arnhem, Alighiero Boetti exhibited a bronze statue of himself, calling the work simply Autoritratto. By the early 90s, Boetti wasn’t much known for his sculpture, and so the work must have come as a surprise. Certainly Boetti had never previously used such a traditional material as bronze for sculpture: instead, at the start of his career, he was known for his transformations of modern industrial materials like Eternit tubes, deck-chair fabric, corrugated cardboard, and metal railings. But he certainly had produced several self-portraits at the end of the 1960s, and the 1993 Autoritratto picks up some of the ideas he had explored some 25 years before. For one of the early self-portraits, he had himself photographed from the torso up, one hand clenched in a fist, the other with fingers spread open, as if to show how the artist had to hold on to both the introvert and extrovert aspects of their character. In another work, Boetti made a kind of double of himself with clumps of cement formed like snowballs, laid out prostrate on the floor. The work was called Me Sunbathing in Turin on the 19 th January 1969 – an absurd title which presented an image of the artist as a kind of cynical waster, refusing to work in midwinter in a busy industrial city. However, amidst all the grey cement balls, Boetti pinned a yellow butterfly above the place of the heart, and with this, conveyed a very different idea – that the artist is a true spirit, poetic and fragile and free. The 1993 Autoritratto is so compelling because it likewise provokes contradictory readings.
The 1993 self-portrait began with Boetti making a full body cast in plaster. In the final bronze, he is shown wearing a cheap, baggy and poorly fitting suit. His shirt is unbuttoned, he is tieless, and a loose handkerchief is sticking out of a pocket. His left leg is straight, his right slightly bent and rather than string forward with confidence and deliberation, he appears to adopt a somewhat tired pose to ease the pressure on his back. One arm dangles by his side, the other is bent, stretching out and up just above his head. In this hand, Boetti holds a thin hosepipe. The hosepipe sprinkles a constant jet of water up and onto the artist. Some water dribbles down his face, dripping off the end of his nose and down onto his trousers, so it appears that he has a perpetual cold and is always wetting himself. Nevertheless, most of the water hits his crown. Underneath his hair, a concealed heating mechanism keeps the metal at boiling point so, hitting it, the sprinkle turns instantly into a cloud of steam that is blown about and away by the breeze.
One could see Autoritratto as one of the more depressing and more perceptive analyses of the figure of the artist late in the twentieth century. The artist we see here has relinquished the apparel and apparatus of the nineteenth-century studio – the smocks and the palettes and the chisels. He has set aside the workmen’s overalls adopted by Alexander Rodchenko and more recently Carl Andre. Dressed like a clerk in a poorly paid office job, the artist appears as a nondescript subject of an administered world. Avant-garde agitators once held aloft banners and placards, but here, Boetti raises a pathetic substitute, a garden hose, and condemns himself to perpetual self-humiliation. Autoritratto shows that the revolutionary dream of the artist as an industrial worker is over but it also suggests that the idea of the artist as incisive provocateur is gone too. Boetti must have had in mind Duchamp’s Fountain and Nauman’s Self-Portrait as Fountain and he knew his fountain came after these works: in third-place rank, one is condemned to live out a farce.
However, there are ways of seeing Autoritratto other than as a work about defeat, humiliation, and futility. The artist is also presented as a thinker of such extraordinary sensitivity and capacity that his head is boiling: he needs to cool himself down and directs the hose accordingly. Boetti had previously attempted to visualise the nature of artistic thought in the biro drawings titled I sei sensi (The six senses) and he also saw Pack and the Tutto works as images of his crowded mind. Autoritratto provides an altogether more direct and more poignant image of what thinking was like for this artist. In some ways, Autoritratto represents the personal tragedy of Boetti: here was someone who could sit for a day just listening to the chimes of church bells, who liked to think of himself as non curante, ‘carefree’, and who wanted to ‘give time to time’ and yet who was also so restless, so ‘beautifully impatient’ (to quote Hans-Ulrich Obrist) that his head hurt. The last word square Boetti composed, which he made as a drawing and gave to his daughter to open after he died, was another kind of self-portrait, reading L’ANGOSCIANTE PRESENZA DELL’INTELLIGENZA: ‘The depressing presence of intelligence’. In some ways it could be an appropriate subtitle for the fountain Autoritratto.
It is certainly not pleasant to feel one’s head is boiling like this but there are positive consequences to having a head filled with ideas. The work deserves a more optimistic interpretation as well as the rather gloomy ones I’ve outlined so far. Boetti wanted to present an image of his thinking, and so invited future viewers of the Autoritratto to imagine the clouds of steam flying off the figure’s head as his thoughts. ‘The wind is a moment of grace; the wind constantly transforms shapes’, Boetti said to Sandro Lombardi. If the clouds of steam are Boetti’s ideas, where are the winds taking them now? Everywhere, it seems to me. Boetti’s ideas continue to excite new generations of artists and other viewers, and with each new presentation of the sculpture, the clouds of steam continue to do their work.
- Mark Godfrey