by Sukanya GargOct 05, 2019
Italian artist Maria Lai was born in September 1919. On the centenary of her birth, MAXXI, National Museum of the 21st Century Arts in Rome, Italy, organised a major retrospective of the artist, Tenendo per Mano il Sole (Holding the Sun by the Hand). Curated by Bartolomeo Pietromarchi and Luigia Lonardelli, the exhibition comprises more than 200 works on display.
Maria Lai was an artist who defied conventional modes of art, creating her own original language, fully aware as she did this, that it would be a rather long journey before her art was understood or accepted. She described her journey as, “I played with great dedication, and at a certain point they called my games art.” What she called games received much recognition over the last few years when her works were displayed as part of the Venice Biennale and Documenta 14. She was also the winner of the Chamber of Deputies Prize for the 150th anniversary of the Unification of Italy for her work Footprints of laws. Lai gave life to words, rather than giving them meaning. The illegible script she threaded together on canvases, books, paper, fabric and other mediums, while could not be read, was infused with essence enough to be understood.
It is no surprise then, that Giovanna Melandri, President of Fondazione MAXXI, said, “We chose to focus substantial attention on feminine artistic visions. Therefore, we could not exclude a project on Maria Lai. The exhibition is a tribute to the character and to the work of a woman who has been able to unravel infinite artistic languages throughout her career, always keeping her research at the centre: representing and reinventing - gently and poetically - all the traditions and symbols of an archaic, eternal culture to speak directly and powerfully to the contemporary generations.”
The retrospective at MAXXI focuses on what has been defined as her second period, mostly displaying works she created in the 1960s. The title of the exhibition, which translates in English as Holding the Sun by the Hand, is the first sewn fable made by the artist. Her primary interests, which included poetry, language and word, are also elements that come together to create a cosmogony of her geographies evoked by the sun; the pedagogical vocation implicit in that ‘taking by the hand’.
The exhibition includes sculptures, sewn books, public works, looms, as well as geographies which formed the most of her oeuvre. Lai saw art as an instrument and a language capable of modifying our reading of the world, an approach that derived from her background as a teacher, and which was later manifested in the sewn books and sewn fables. The show also brings together art games created by Lai, re-readings of traditional games with which she reiterated the fundamental role of creativity in society. Play as a means of attaining self-awareness and learning how to relate to the other, an activity not to be relegated to the world of childhood, but to be cultivated in adulthood too. Her deeply held belief in the redemptive power of art, the theme of play, art as an instrument capable of bringing people together, imagining and relating.
Not only did Lai create a ‘monument for the living’ – Legarsi alla montagna (To Tie Oneself to the Mountain) when she was asked to create a war memorial by the municipality of Ulassai (Sardinia, Italy), threading together the village with blue ribbon that ran across houses, but her artistic interests extended beyond the traditional art. She was also involved in open-air projects, social sculptures, theatre, running workshops and other public activities.
All this and more renders Maria Lai one of the most innovative artists of her generation, one who managed to intercept and interpret at their origin specific cultural mechanisms that underlie contemporary society.
The exhibition is on display until January 12, 2020.