Tight-knit communities. Emotional bind. We speak of the social fabric of a place. Of lives intertwined and relationships fraying. The vocabulary of weaving has long been used to describe ties between communities and individuals, and in her work, Italian artist Maria Lai employs the visual vocabulary of this association.
Born in Ulassai, a village that clings to the Sardinian mountainside, she grew up accustomed to the sight of her grandmother darning sheets. Her first works with ink and paper were figurative, drawn with clean strokes, many of them wrapped in wide swaddling fabrics. At Arte Povera’s height, she fixed on the loom, breaking it into parts and creating sewn canvases. From there on she seems to have persistently explored the properties of thread as an expressive medium, its ability to drape and hang yet also be pulled into taut tension.
At the Hangzhou Fiber Art Festival, one of her works, ‘Sheet’ consists of dissected double pages from a cloth book and wordless writing penned in black thread. In a kind of joined-up morse code, these hair-like threads run off the pages, meandering and rushing onto the next with no sense of chronological order. Nearby, another work of Lai’s ‘Scalp Book’, lies half open. Here the threads spill out, huge tufts of hair clumping together as if a woman lies inside the spine, her hair tugged out Rapunzel-style. The pages are not sufficient to contain her.
Embroidery is all so often about neat order and regularity of prick and pull. When you usually view a piece of weaving, you focus on the patterns, rarely their maker. Lai turns this on its head – you can’t help but think of the faceless woman who writes wordlessly in these pages, wielding her needle threaded with long black hair.
(Maria Lai, Sheet, Thread and cloth, 1989)
(Maria Lai, Scalp Book, Thread and cloth, 1978)