Maria Lai: Art Should Astonish!

As her retrospective at MAXXI in Rome attests, the late Italian artist believed in the power of the imagination to save lives 

When the late Maria Lai was three – in 1922, long before she could read – she observed her grandmother mending bedsheets. Lai recalled: ‘I told her, “these bedsheets have writing on them,” and she replied, “Read them”. So, I would invent stories suggested to me by the movement of the tangled threads.’ In Lai’s long overdue retrospective, threads are everywhere, telling stories, weaving abstract poetry onto textile books, canvases, paper, dresses. 

Featuring works from the 1960s onwards, Tendendo per mano il sole (Taking the Sun by the Hand) is overwhelming – Lai’s prolific output and the sheer variety of materials and techniques she employed, are staggering. From her ‘Sewn Fables’ and colourful abstract looms, to quasi votive terracotta sculptures dedicated to the Janas (Sardinian fairies who, legend has it, introduced looms and weaving to Sardinian women), to her performances and collaborations with students, Lai is an ambassador for Sardinia’s cultural heritage, rendering it universal by reinterpreting it in a contemporary context. Her voice pervades the show in video interviews: part favourite great-aunt, part mystic, she appears infinitely wise.

Maria Lai, Tenendo per mano il sole, installation view, 2019. Courtesy: Fondazione MAXXI; photograph: © Musacchio, Ianniello and Pasqualini

In her first sewn fable, Tenendo per mano il sole (1984–2004) (she often re-worked pieces), a bright orange half sun is sewn onto a coarsely cut, raw beige fabric, the sunrays a tangle of yellow and orange wool. The title, rendered in threads of black cursive, runs obliquely to the left. The story illustrates that once we accept our darkest recesses we can embrace life and see that, in Lai’s own words, ‘despite storms, every flower has the shape of the sun’. The numerous sewn books on show are some of the most captivating pieces here, yet, perversely we aren’t allowed to touch them, despite the fact that Lai made them to be perused slowly, as one would in a library.

Lai’s monumental ‘Geographies’ take over a whole gallery and transport you to a parallel universe. These imaginative maps of the universe offer a glimpse of Lai’s personal cosmogony – the thread like an astral traveller and the fabric its universe. These works are opulent: in Il sole scucito (The Sun Shed, 1986), for example, an unravelling sun is depicted in golden thread against ruffled black velvet. 

Maria Lai, Tenendo per mano il sole, installation view, 2019. Courtesy: Fondazione MAXXI; photograph: © Musacchio, Ianniello and Pasqualini 

Maria Lai, Tenendo per mano il sole, installation view, 2019. Courtesy: Fondazione MAXXI; photograph: © Musacchio, Ianniello and Pasqualini 

Lai – who died in 2013 – believed that art should astonish, offering up clues, even a lifeline, to help us navigate our lives. Nowhere is this more evident than in her seminal performance piece Legarsi Alla Montagna (Bind to the Mountain, 1981). The first instance of relational art in Italy, the work brought together all the inhabitants of her hometown, Ulassai. Lai was originally commissioned to create a war memorial, which she refused, famously stating: ‘If you want to make history, you shouldn’t do what everyone else has done, you should do something new.’ She proposed tying each house in Ulassai to its neighbour with a blue ribbon, which would ultimately be tied to the mountain towering above. Her proposal stemmed from the local legend of a girl who escaped a landslide by leaving her shelter from a storm in order to chase a blue ribbon carried by the wind. This spontaneous action which ultimately saved her life, was, to Lai, an apt metaphor for art. Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the performance is its lengthy gestation, which in many ways reflected the duality explored in Lai’s art: many neighbours felt animosity towards each other and didn’t want to participate. Finally, the villagers came up with a code: where there was bad blood between neighbours, the ribbon would be straight; a knot where relations were peaceful; a bow represented friendship; and a traditional festive loaf of bread was tied in instances of love. The performance is documented by Piero Berengo Gardin’s gorgeous black and white photographs – a young woman beams at us as she ties the ribbon, a rock climber is just about visible at the top of the mountain as the ribbon cascades down the towering stone mountain – and a Super 8 video by Tonino Casula. Lai said: ‘a poem, made up of words, can be a monument, so why can’t the same by done with a ribbon?’ Its legacy endures and astonishes to this day. 

Tendendo per mano il sole (Taking the Sun by the Hand) is at MAXXI, Rome, Italy, until 12 January 2020

Main image: Maria Lai, Tenendo per mano il sole, installation view, 2019. Courtesy: Fondazione MAXXI; photograph: © Musacchio, Ianniello and Pasqualini 

Ana Vukadin is a writer, translator and editor who lives in Jesi, Italy.

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