“We exist in as much as the others interpret us”
In spite of having always been in poor health Maria Lai, at almost one hundred years of age, keeps writing and producing works of art.
When I get to the house in the heart of Sardinia where she lives with her sister, I have a very high curiosity to ask her what her secret is. But it is enough for me to see her curious eyes and how she bends her own body to laugh, just like a child, that I understand it myself. Maria Lai is a child for whom life is a big play that, if she could, would play over again, “better though”, for another century.
“Everybody asks me ‘at your age, why don’t you give up working?’ and I answer ‘why don’t you give up breathing?’ I am really lucky for having always played and keep doing it. All my plays have been a thrust to daydream, to tell lies. Only afterwards did I realize they called it art”.
She informs me right away that she doesn’t like to be interviewed “because I’m not important and in the end it’s always about gossiping”. I ask her how we can do it to avoid it. “First of all let us forget it is an interview”. We try it, sitting at the wooden table of the big house looking at the mountains where she has spent most of her childhood until the war, when she left the island to study art, first in Rome and then at the academy of art in Venice.
“When I got to Venice I was 23 years old but I looked like 13 with my short hair and 1.40 meters height”. Sardinia was considered to be the third world and she, therefore, a savage. She was the only woman in her course. “I was such a surprise that everyone expected me to leave soon, but I kept attending class everyday, even if Arturo Martini, my professor, used to humiliate me, often talking dirty to make me run away. He belonged to a generation that didn’t admit women in art”.
She did not pay attention to it and even pretended she did not understand. “I was aware I was not worth it but I was also aware that I could not live without his words”, she remembers. “I was not looking for his friendship, I wanted to understand”.
Notwithstanding the drama of the war, the bombings, the far away family she did not have news of, in Venice she felt peaceful and “despite everything I also felt I was in the right place, as I always do when entering unknown dimensions”, she says. “To me it was a great occasion to rummage through myself until I found the ball of thread”.
While talking, she continuously looks with her hands for something to touch, as if searching an idea by touching things. The choice falls unfailingly on the recorder in front of her. “We deal with art thinking we can start from thoughts. Instead, first of all we need to fall in love with a material and this is an answer I got from Arturo Martini” she says almost apologizing while I draw her up other objects I find on the table.
It is in the silence “absolutely necessary condition to find a reality” of the post-war years spent in Rome that Lai found, among the tradition of her homeland and outside the physical limits of the canvas, her materials.
Handlooms, breads, ceramics, threads she sews books with. Threads that become fairy tales and fairy tales that become environmental interventions and collective performances. One intervention above all occupies a special place in her heart: “Legarsi alla montagna” (Getting tied to the mountain), which she carries out at the beginning of the Eighties in her town, with her town.
It all began when the mayor of Ulassai asked her to ‘donate’ a war memorial. She answered that she would have not done work for the dead but that, if they wanted her to, she would have done one for the living and the mayor took up the challenge. The idea of the intervention came from a local folk tale. It is the story of a girl child who, sent to the mountain to bring bread to the shepherds and having taken refuge with them in a cave to shelter from a storm, sees a baby-blue ribbon and runs out to follow it, so saving herself while the cave comes down sweeping away the shepherds and their herds.
That baby-blue ribbon, she decided, would have tied the houses of the town one to the other and then to the mountain, so revealing the weaves of the social and human relationships.
“At first all the town was against me”, she remembers. “Somebody even asked me how could I think to leave my hometown for such a long time and then come back and ask them to do things they could not understand while they had much more important issues to deal with. I was starting to worry I was causing damage until one person told me ‘anyways you are brave, because we are many and you are alone’. There I understood how much they needed art and they did not know it. They were the ones who were alone, not me, because I was there for them”.
Together with the town people it was decided that where no relationship among families existed, the ribbon would pass straight away, a knot between two houses would show a friendship while holiday bread hung with a flock would mean an emotional tie existed there.
“I felt this work of art might have told us better who we were. Following the path of a gaze and bring it towards the sky is the first sign of human growth, just like the plants”.
A cloth trader gave some material as present and the town started working until they got 26 kilometres of baby-blue ribbon.
On September the 8th, 1981 women, men and children occupied the streets. The ribbon passed from hand to hand, was thrown from one house to the other, tied and decked out until all the houses were tied together and, from there, to the mountain.
And then the theatre set designing, the work with children, and the animation. Above all, the play. “I always use the metaphor of the soccer player, who plays because his body requires him to, besides his need to open up, become something else and face the challenge itself”.
Maria Lai feels she has not been forced to renounce to anything for being a woman and the fact of not getting married was her precise choice. “Boys of my generation, even the most educated ones, used to tell me ‘since I love you, you belong to me’, which made me run away. I used to feel very much in love but we always got to the point where I knew I had to sell myself”.
What do you think helped you remaining free and independent?
“Well, being tiny and light has always helped me a lot”, she says smiling. “I think that if I hadn’t been so, I would have also been more miserable, like a child who cannot play”.