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Maria Lai

Monday 26th September, 2016

The rural region of Ogilastra, Sardinia is an unlikely place for a contemporary art gallery. To get there from Cagliari one must drive, wrapping round the island’s south-east coast past velvety hills edged by Opuntia cacti. After turning inland, the blunt pinnacles of the Gennargentu mountains begin to rise and fall in every direction. It is here that the Museo Stazione del’arte can be found, tucked away on the side of a gorge.

The gallery holds the largest collection of works by Maria Lai, an artist from Ogilastra who died in 2013 at the age of 93. Ranging from drawing, painting, sculpture, prose and mixed media to a large-scale performance involving the local population, Lai’s practice is so firmly rooted in the region that it is hard to imagine her works shown on any other site. A poetics of place runs through her oeuvre. She draws primarily on the folk culture of her mountainous homeland, as well as the legend, history and ecology of the island itself. Her bond with the landscape was also deeply political. Fellow Sardinian Antonio Gramsci was a central inspiration, although the two never met in person, Lai being just 18 when the philosopher died in the late 1930s.

After studying with the local historian Salvatore Cambosu, Lai went to art school in Rome, then Venice. After the war she returned to Sardinia, teaching in a women’s college in Cagliari till 1949, eventually returning to Rome to resume her life as an artist. After several exhibitions in the 1950s her work became known. Yet it was not until the early 1970s that Lai was widely recognized, her pieces appearing as part of an acclaimed group show at the Venice Biennale. In September 1981, Lai created her most famous work, ‘Legarsi alla Montagna’ (Bind the Mountain). Staged in the village of Ulassai in Ogilastra, the performance was based on a miraculous event over a century earlier, in which a chunk of mountain broke off and crushed a homestead. Three little girls died, but one managed to escape holding a pale blue ribbon in hand. After Lai was commissioned by the mayor of Ulassai to create a monument to soldiers from the region that had died in the war, the artist adapted the story. She and the other villagers worked together, crafting a pale blue ribbon that was 27 kilometers long. Then, residents of the village passed it from one home to the other, yoking each together and ameliorating any tension between neighbours. The monument was thus a transient, convivial one honouring life as well as death.

The first room of the Museo Stazione del’arte features Lai’s early work, mostly drawings that reflect her interest in ‘primitive’ aesthetics during her Roman training. Weaving is a recurring motif. The second, upstairs room features a selection of assemblage pieces on wood panels, each referencing the loom through the inclusion of wefts and threads, as well as glitter, artificial flowers, sand and glitter. Early this September there was also a temporary exhibition of Lai’s sculptures, shown alongside works by her art school mentors, Marino Mazzacurati and Arturo Martini.

Lai’s achievements extend outside of the gallery into the surrounding area. In the form of a stone wall she constructed by hand, her labour stretches along the roadside, and there are numerous other installations between the museum and the centre of Ulassai. In the village itself, Lai’s legacy is preserved in a wash house where the villagers used to clean their clothes. In 1982 Lai created a mechanism for the running water that produces a beautiful sound, and the cold, clean water that today trickles out from the spring outside the building attracts families from all over the region who come to fill up bottles. More fragments of loom decorate the ceiling of the wash room, hemmed by geometric patterns painted on stone.

*note: I was lucky enough to visit Ogilastra with my brilliant mentor and friend Lidia Curti. For a more in-depth meditation on Maria Lai and the context for her work see Lidia's essay 'Stones, Lava, Sand, Water: From the Archives of the Land to the Languages of Art' in The Ruined Archive, ed. Iain Chambers, Giulia Grechi and Mark Nash, Milan, 2014.