Holding the Sun by the Hand invites the public to “listen with their eyes” to Maria Lai’s interwoven stories. The exhibition, curated by Bartolomeo Pietromarchi and Luigia Lonardelli, brings together the threads of a plural narrative divided into five chapters that retrace the work of the woman-weaver from the 1960s onwards. The Sardinian artist’s silent song – the centenary of her birth is being celebrated this year – resonates in the fluid space of MAXXI with a collection of over 200 works that revolve around tradition, memory and games that Lai played with adult ‘seriousness’. The sculptures, paintings, photographs and video interviews on display animate the large anthology which finishes outside the museum in the relational dimension that Maria Lai created for her environmental interventions.
At the end of the Second World War, at a time when the female figure occupied a marginal space in the art world, Maria Lai returned to Sardinia after attending the Venice Fine Arts Academy where she was supervised by the sculptor Arturo Martini. Lai bases her poetics in the oral and craft traditions of her native land. The Looms grouped together in the first chapter of the exhibition, entitled Being is Weaving, sowing and restitching, are a hymn to creation and skills. Manual labour and materiality were always an integral part of Maria Lai’s research. Until her death in 2013, she continued to experiment with new aids for her visual writing such as textiles, terracotta, bread and plastic.
Lai approaches the rhythm of storytelling using the human voice in the animations she assembled with director Francesco Casu and by writing musical scores. The thread, designed or embroidered, remains an omnipresent element in the body of work presented at MAXXI. After the Looms, the artist started to sow her own Book and her own Fairy Tales, taking inspiration from Sardinian stories, myths and legends. The mythical Janas, which Lai embroidered with patience and detail, starting from the 1980s, make an appearance. Armed with looms, these fairies from Sardinian mythology “play at being women”.
Weaving, as well as bread-making (The Children’s Cemetery, 1977), become attributes of the female archetype and her generating force. The divinities inhabiting the caves of the Ulassai stone forest enter these Fairy Tales and take the shape of sacred doors, collecting the pieces of the universe which are then offered to man. The Janas evoke the female element which traverses and brings together Maria Lai’s entire body of work, but also her conception of art as a gift. This is when the social component was established which, in 1981, led the artist to “put the inhabitants into her work” in what today is considered one of the first examples of relational art in Italy. Taking inspiration from a local story, Lai invited the people of Ulassai to join their houses and surround the mountains with sky blue ribbon in the action piece Tying Oneself to the Mountain which illuminates all the tension of being together.
Before reaching the audiovisual and photographic documents of this seminal work, the exhibition introduces Geographies which portrays imaginary universes imitating the geometric language of astrology. As in the sown Books, which illustrate a form of writing without words, Geographies is an invitation to travel, to go beyond space towards an undefined somewhere else. Lai employs different forms of language and, by emptying them of their content, builds a mnemonic archive that is open to the reader’s participation. “Art is unspeakable”, declares a paper in Artistic Locations Within Reach. Maria Lai invents her own language that through signs, symbols and rhythm oscillates between collective memory and poetry.
Maria Lai. Tenendo per mano il Sole, curated by Bartolomeo Pietromarchi and Luigia Lonardelli, Museo MAXXI, Rome, 19.06.2018 – 12.01.2019
images: (cover 1) Maria Lai at work in UIassai, 1993. Photo Maria Sofia Pisu (2) Maria Lai, «Telaio del meriggio», 1967. wood, string, canvas, tempera. cm 100 x 153 x 20. Stazione dell’Arte Foundation. Photo credit Tiziano Canu. Courtesy Fondazione Stazione dell’Arte © Maria Lai Archive by SIAE 2019 (3) Maria Lai, «Tenendo per mano il sole», 1984-2004, thread, fabric, velvet cm 33 x 63. Private Collection. Photo credit Francesco Casu. Courtesy Archivio Maria Lai © Archivio Maria Lai by SIAE 2019 (4) Maria Lai, «La mappa di Colombo», 1983. thread, cloth cm 122 x 170. Fondazione Stazione dell’Arte Collection. Photo credit Tiziano Canu. Courtesy Fondazione Stazione dell’Arte © Maria Lai Archive by SIAE 2019 (5) Maria Lai, «Senza titolo», 1991. thread, fabric, tempera. cm 17 x 19 x 2,5. M77 Gallery, Milan. Photo credit Lorenzo Palmieri Courtesy M77 Gallery and Maria Lai Archive © Maria Lai Archive by SIAE 2019 (6)Maria Lai, «Senza titolo», 1991. thread, fabric. cm 18 x 16. Private Collection. Photo credit Giorgio Dettori. Courtesy Maria Lai Archive.