Artist: Maria Lai
The works of Maria Lai (1919–2013) entail elements of collage, Art Informel, and even Dadaism in combination with geometric and conceptual influences. They are defined by a natural coexistence of Arte Povera, Spatialism, and a highly personal form of narrative. Although always contemporary, her works manage to link the past with the present and tradition with the avant-garde. Her aesthetic practice alternatingly drew on idioms of the primeval, the immediate, and the universal, whereby her intention was never to communicate an abstracted universality. Instead, she focused on honing the gaze to distinguish relationships and recognize cultural connections.
In the context of the Galerie Stadtpark program, Maria Lai’s work demonstrates iconic and conceptual references to and commonalities with other positions from past exhibitions. On a purely formal level it entails parallels with Fred Sandback’s linear-sculptural interrogations of space and with the environment- and performance-based works of Franz Erhard Walther, in which one finds a conscious use of simple materials as a means of inviting the viewer to engage with and relate to the work. Lai was not interested in things and forms—and in this sense her oeuvre could be considered path-breaking—but in transformative processes, in narratives and metaphors within materials and, reversely, in the manifestation of forms through story-telling. Her work expresses a consistent attempt to explore and convey the interdependence of the present and the past. For Lai, legends, myths, and traditions—generally considered anti-modern in the context of post-war modernity—were constitutive of cultural activity, thought, and cultural development.
The Looms that Lai began creating in the sixties—and that can be viewed as clearly marking a shift in her aesthetic practice—have been consciously omitted from the exhibition in the interim. The constellation of the selected works is conceived to outline and reflect upon Maria Lai’s practice; it is formed around the absent Looms in the gesture of an “empty center.” The Looms create both a material and conceptual link between object and image, joining the physical dimension with a pictorial-projective mode of perception. The threads spanned in the Looms, which Lai described as “useless machines,” are as much an aesthetic component of the work as the loom itself; it is an “object” suggesting a potentiality, the material of which can possibly become a medium, i.e. the canvas. The spanned, woven threads refer to the potentiality of the image, to what could be depicted on the canvas, to what story might be told. The loom frames an aesthetic transformation, making imaginary space “visible.” It is simultaneously the condition of production (of the canvas as a medium) and an autonomous sculpture-like form. Ultimately it draws together Lai’s interest on the linearity of drawing, visuality, traditional craftsmanship, and process-based practice.
Lai’s development, from the early years of her work (in the 1950s) onward, can be described as a path leading from drawing to process-oriented practice. Even when she was still largely doing drawings, she was not interested in representation, nor in (obviously identifiable) content, but in subtle transformations of form as a means of expressiveness and connotation. Even in her early drawings she attempts to get to the “essence” of what is portrayed, even if the works at first glance seem to portray trivial scenes. In the process she is attuned to a notion of drawing that is elementary, simple, and even traditional—and thus so modern. The element of skill, the draftsman’s craft, is not employed as an inscribed constellation of meaning but as a process of creating marks and tracings of aesthetic potentiality.
Lai’s drawings show landscapes (often of Ogliastra), sheep grazing in a meadow, women baking bread, or faces of her friends. She taps scenic, simple, and evocative narratives. Instead of showing them in an anecdotal light, she presents them in a manner that allows these images of essentially repetitive actions and ordinary scenes to unfold as a repeating, interpictorial structure. The inherent rhythm of the images is analogous to the repeated aesthetic activity of drawing. The notion of rhythm emerges as a fundamental, structuring element of Lai’s oeuvre. In her works (from the 1950s and 1960s) she demonstrates an increasing interest on the periodicity of cultural processes.
Her sewn books (dating from the late 1970s onward) show “writing” but without an identifiable script or semantic structure. These stitched books point to potential intertextual relationships. The artist transformed the written word into meaning-generating symbols that do not make obvious sense. Lai was hereby not engaging in a philosophical or, let alone, poststructuralist undertaking to generate polysemy and expand meaning. Instead, she applied these notions on an intertextual and visually metaphorical level, thereby producing what evidently seems to be a lack of content as a means of fostering the imaginative capacity to form new links of meaning. Although not directly, the sewn books refer to both the past and the future. Legends, orally transmitted, and handed-down stories form the visual basis for potential new narratives and depictions. The artist thereby focused the viewer’s attention on the function and cultural context of a text.
The act of writing, translated into that of sewing, functions as a metaphor for cultural activity and cultural processes per se. Lai’s stitched books present an emphatically layered practice of writing, an overwriting and rewriting. This idiom of interlinking and weaving is also evinced in the Geographies series that Lai began producing in the 1970s. Beyond their ostensible appearance as maps, these Geographies are also visual interrogations and examinations of immaterial relationships and processes. Lai’s maps are neither cartographic descriptions nor recorded data, and they do not reflect imaginary ideas about the world or the gaze. Instead they reveal map-like relational spaces of possibility, and in this sense they are notations of potential spatial connections and linking.
Lai’s various forms of working (drawing, sewing, weaving, making objects, and, later, undertaking social interventions) are cross-referential, interlaced aesthetic practices. Art and life do not present an opposition but unfold in continuous interaction. In her works, both as processes and objects, the artist consistently reflects on relationships to the human body. Within this conceptual context, she achieved a synthesis of Land Art and Public Art in her work from the 1980s, which was aimed at creating a new kind of relationship between perception and experience, and which departed from a presentation on the wall of the gallery—facilitating viewers, who often became participants, direct contact with something that was per se invisible.
In 1981 Lai was invited by the Municipality of Ulassai, her birthplace, to create a monument to those who had fallen in the World Wars, Lai was not interested in producing a pared-down monument or memorial and initially turned down the request. When the municipality insisted, she accepted the invitation a year later but under her own conditions. She did not wish to create an object of contemplation and commemoration but the interrogation of a place, its inhabitants, and their relationship to one another—as well as an examination of social and rural realities.
One could describe Legarsi alla montagna (Tied to the Mountain, 1981) as environmental art, since the landscape is a fundamental theme (as in the Geographies), but in this case the landscape serves as a backdrop for theatre-like interaction. The unique aspect of this public, participatory work, which differentiates it from most artistic interventions of this period, is its frame of reference, which lies utterly beyond the system of art and its social-aesthetic conventions. Lai turned a place situated beyond of the attention of the art world, an explicitly rural town, into the place where a magically intoned “ritual” takes place. The ritual was based on an old and almost forgotten Sardinian legend about a girl who alone was saved from death in a storm by a blue ribbon that hung down from the heavens. Lai invited all the inhabitants of the village to use cloth bands that she had prepared to bind themselves to other inhabitants and also the massive form of the mountain. A network of countless blue bands was formed, which made visible the connections between houses, and thus between the individuals who inhabit them, and also the “relation” of the inhabitants to the mountain, into the side of which the village had been built.
The visual language of the fifteen-minute 8-mm film shows the action as alternating between play and festival. Lai manages to create both a performance and an environment of contemporary art, which on the surface is hardly recognized as such. She creates an analogy for art itself through her ability to not only transcend the ordinary and make the hidden seen but to reveal something invisible that is undergoing constant change.
Over the course of Lai’s life, Sardinia’s landscape, people, and history increasingly formed the backdrop and point of reference for her works. The unique qualities of Sardinian culture constitute an integral component of her aesthetic practice, as if the artist was attempting to trace cultural activity and identity on the exemplary model of her own origins and influences. In the process, cultural and often unconscious “archetypical” forms and narratives were never presented in a traditionalist or essentialist framework; they were never shown as the starting point or conclusion of an investigation. Maria Lai was not interested in the valuation of cultural forms but their relational quality, their links to history and to people — of the here and now.
Text: David Komary