INSIGHTS | Conversation with Chiara Principe (M77)

The REDISCOVERY section at Art Brussels, dedicated to 20th century art, aims to excavate and highlight surprising, unknown and original practices that have not yet broken into the historical mainstream. Newcomer M77 from Milan will feature a duo presentation of Maria Lai and Braco Dimitrijević in REDISCOVERY. As part Art Brussels Insights, we spoke with Chiara Principe, director of M77 about the work of Maria Lai.

Conversation with Chiara Principe (M77)
And Louis-Philippe Van Eeckhoutte

How would you describe the vision of M77?
M77 opened in 2014 with the purpose of creating room for new ideas in Milan’s contemporary art scene. Offering its 1000 m2 space as a platform for dialogue and a place for ambitious projects, M77 fosters exhibitions with a strong site-specificity. Gradually, over the last five years, the gallery has embarked on and expanded a clear exhibition program focused on very personal declinations of the conceptual attitude, often preferring to shed light on underrepresented mid-career and established artists, both Italian and international.

What does being part of Art Brussels 2020 mean for M77?
Art Brussels is one of the oldest contemporary art fairs in Europe, second only to Art Cologne. It takes place in a beautiful city that can rely on a strong and farsighted collector base that underpins the city’s art scene. We are excited to make our debut in this rich and vibrant community, and to reach new Belgian collectors and important art industry players, not to mention being exposed to an ever-growing international public.

Can you tell us more about Maria Lai, whose work you will be presenting in REDISCOVERY at Art Brussels 2020?
Maria Lai was an extraordinary human being and a visionary artist, born in Sardinia in 1919. Though her early endeavours took her to Rome and Venice, she was always drawn back to the customs and folklore of her island. Through the re-reading of stories and materials from Sardinian traditions, she created her very own language, which encompassed works on paper, sculptures, embroidery, textiles, performances and installations. With her Telai (Looms) and Libri cuciti (Embroidered Books), she used a female perspective to semantically re-conceptualize the framework in which art is defined and made. Due to her strong, yet effortless, poetic sensibility, Maria Lai’s production is a unique, almost impossible to categorize voice of the 20th century. The artworks we are presenting at Art Brussels 2020 are a refined selection of Maria Lai’s historical pieces, featuring her Telai, embroideries on fabric, including her sewn pages as well as her disarmingly charming jute sculptures.

Most recently, Maria Lai’s work was included in Documenta 14 in Athens and the Venice Biennale, both in 2017. How do you look at the evolution in her recognition?
Maria Lai is one of those artists whose legacy was never questioned, her name mentioned and respected in inner artistic circles, but who – during her lifetime – struggled to break through to the greater public. Her oeuvre being so subtly powerful, almost touching, made it hard to question its relevance, but the unique nature of her work made it difficult to define it and label as part of a wider current, disadvantaging her on a broader, international platform. Lai’s 1981 collective performance project, Bind to the Mountain / Legarsi alla Montagna, in which villagers from her hometown Ulassai tied knots of long strips of sky-blue fabric, binding, from one house to another, the whole village to the nearby Gedili mountain, is widely considered the first Relational Art piece ever realized. Her institutional recognition and her market struggled to match her stature as an artist who has been in the art history books for at least a decade. For the last two years, M77 has been working closely with the Maria Lai Archive and Foundation in order to change this trajectory, hosting Lai’s first gallery exhibition in 2018, her biggest and most complete exhibition to date. In 2019, on the centenary of her birth, MAXXI Museum in Rome dedicated a ground-breaking, six-month retrospective to her: Holding the Sun by the Hand / Tenendo per mano il Sole, described as a ‘due tribute’. We’ve seen her market grow steadily over the last few years, and there are great things to come for her work in 2020 and 2021.

Do you have any advice for young, aspiring art collectors?
Always acquire what captures your attention, aesthetically and/or conceptually, maybe even challenging yourself and your views, and make sure it comes from a place of admiration and awareness. Take the risk to follow your instincts, to let go of what you think you know and bear in mind that as a contemporary art collector, you can help shape the conversation around art itself. Also, you should build your collection by drawing on your personal story and vision. Privilege that over trends and it will benefit you and your collection in the long run. As we all know, art can be a great tool for investment. You can grow both financially and personally if you start the right dialogues with artists, curators and dealers. You should do your research, but at the same time confide in the gallerist who is a facilitator and ultimately has his or her artists’ and collectors’ best interests at heart.

Can you tell us more about Maria Lai, whose work you will be presenting in REDISCOVERY at Art Brussels 2020?
Maria Lai was an extraordinary human being and a visionary artist, born in Sardinia in 1919. Though her early endeavours took her to Rome and Venice, she was always drawn back to the customs and folklore of her island. Through the re-reading of stories and materials from Sardinian traditions, she created her very own language, which encompassed works on paper, sculptures, embroidery, textiles, performances and installations. With her Telai (Looms) and Libri cuciti (Embroidered Books), she used a female perspective to semantically re-conceptualize the framework in which art is defined and made. Due to her strong, yet effortless, poetic sensibility, Maria Lai’s production is a unique, almost impossible to categorize voice of the 20th century. The artworks we are presenting at Art Brussels 2020 are a refined selection of Maria Lai’s historical pieces, featuring her Telai, embroideries on fabric, including her sewn pages as well as her disarmingly charming jute sculptures.

Most recently, Maria Lai’s work was included in Documenta 14 in Athens and the Venice Biennale, both in 2017. How do you look at the evolution in her recognition?
Maria Lai is one of those artists whose legacy was never questioned, her name mentioned and respected in inner artistic circles, but who – during her lifetime – struggled to break through to the greater public. Her oeuvre being so subtly powerful, almost touching, made it hard to question its relevance, but the unique nature of her work made it difficult to define it and label as part of a wider current, disadvantaging her on a broader, international platform. Lai’s 1981 collective performance project, Bind to the Mountain / Legarsi alla Montagna, in which villagers from her hometown Ulassai tied knots of long strips of sky-blue fabric, binding, from one house to another, the whole village to the nearby Gedili mountain, is widely considered the first Relational Art piece ever realized. Her institutional recognition and her market struggled to match her stature as an artist who has been in the art history books for at least a decade. For the last two years, M77 has been working closely with the Maria Lai Archive and Foundation in order to change this trajectory, hosting Lai’s first gallery exhibition in 2018, her biggest and most complete exhibition to date. In 2019, on the centenary of her birth, MAXXI Museum in Rome dedicated a ground-breaking, six-month retrospective to her: Holding the Sun by the Hand / Tenendo per mano il Sole, described as a ‘due tribute’. We’ve seen her market grow steadily over the last few years, and there are great things to come for her work in 2020 and 2021.

Do you have any advice for young, aspiring art collectors?
Always acquire what captures your attention, aesthetically and/or conceptually, maybe even challenging yourself and your views, and make sure it comes from a place of admiration and awareness. Take the risk to follow your instincts, to let go of what you think you know and bear in mind that as a contemporary art collector, you can help shape the conversation around art itself. Also, you should build your collection by drawing on your personal story and vision. Privilege that over trends and it will benefit you and your collection in the long run. As we all know, art can be a great tool for investment. You can grow both financially and personally if you start the right dialogues with artists, curators and dealers. You should do your research, but at the same time confide in the gallerist who is a facilitator and ultimately has his or her artists’ and collectors’ best interests at hea

Images:
1. Chiara Principe, courtesy of Lorenzo Palmieri
2-5. installation view, About Maria Lai at M77, Milan, courtesy of M77 and Lorenzo Palmieri
6. Maria Lai, Presepe Velluto, Scritture e Figure, 1968/2007, thread on velvet applied on wooden case, stone, iron wire and jute sculptures, 82 x 42 x 12 cm, courtesy of M77 and Archivio Maria Lai, Siae 2019
7. Maria Lai, Casa delle Janas, 1996, mixed media on paper and fabric, 25 x 18 cm , courtesy of M77 and Archivio Maria Lai, Siae 2019
8. Maria Lai, Scritture e Geografie, 2006, mixed media on canvas applied on wooden case, 56.5 x 43 x 5 cm, courtesy of M77 and Archivio Maria Lai, Siae 2019

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