When art becomes like a ritual / When the ritual becomes art / time is no longer considered.
In a small town amidst the Ogliastra mountains, on September 8, 1981 Maria Lai was revolutionizing the concept of art by creating what is considered to be the first relational artwork. This idea of hers awarded her with international fame and in the following years Ulassai became an open-air museum, forming a continuous relationship with its surrounding environment, including its citizens.
Mountain Ties was a troubling idea that, since it’s birth, was much hindered as it’s innovative character was completely misunderstood. In 1978 the artist received a commission to create a memorial piece to honour the fallen in war, it was to be built in the Ogliastra municipality. Maria Lai refused, proposing instead to create a monument for the living, something that would involve the community. The Town Council, which probably expected a “classic” piece of artwork, maybe a sculpture to honour its war heroes, had an ongoing discussion with the artist about this until, one day, it decided to trust the artists instinct. In September 1981, following a long process which included the citizens of Ulassai, the project began.
Watch Tonino Casula’s documentary:
For this extraordinary project, a mix between performance and site-specific art, the Sardinian artist found inspiration in a local story: “Sa Rutta de is’antigus”, which literally means “Cave of the Ancients”. The story is about a girl who was able to find safety during a landslide thanks to a blue thread carried by the wind. This story created the spark which ignited the artist’s imagination: a popular legend, handed down through generations, with various titles and different nuances, but still a tale belonging to the citizens of Ulassai and part of their identity.
Mountain Ties was able to involve the whole community: around 27km of light blue fabric were able to tie together the people of the area with the land and the houses. The relationships between family members and neighbours were rendered explicit by junctions in the denim fabric; a simple knot was created between houses of strangers whereas between friends and relatives it was decorated with bows and pintau bread. Families worked side by side, putting aside all their pride and disagreements. The hands of the elders guided those of the children to help them discover the world, and the eyes of the young were able to see much further ahead.
Regarding this historic moment, in 1982 Filiberto Menna stated: “…Has the wonderful daydream of modern art changing life come true, even if only this one time, right here in this distant place where the prestigious names of the artistic avant-garde are nothing but names? I like to think so. It seems that here art has been able to do what religion and politics have always failed to do. And it took Maria Lai’s ability to truly listen and give back speech to an entire town, creating a connection with the memories and ghosts of the place, helping them put aside destructiveness to open up, be available to new conversations and solidarity.”
This collective action, this gathering of people, was captured in the black and white photographs of Piero Berengo Gardin (later coloured by Maria Lai herself) and in the documentary by Tonino Casula.
Find out more by visiting the website dedicated to Maria Lai.
Translated by Ludovica Sarti
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