Forty years ago, the people of Ulassai, Italy tied their isolated Sardinian village to a nearby mountain. Starting on September 8, 1981, the collective action would last three days, involve almost all of the town’s 1,000 inhabitants, and require nearly 17 miles of light blue denim ribbon. The ribbon snaked up side streets, draped between balconies, climbed church spires, and finally sailed to the top of Mount Gedili, which towers above the remote, rocky town.
The event combined elements of land art, performance, and installation. But the ribbon also forged a symbolic and physical coming together in a place where family feuds and even violence had spanned generations. Behind everything was Maria Lai, a post-war Italian artist born in 1919 and raised in Ulassai. Her goal for the project? “Art should … make us feel more united,” she reflected in 2009, five years before she passed. “Otherwise we’re not human beings.”
Though Lai’s project eventually involved everyone in her hometown, it sprang from a personal rift. After her younger brother was ambushed and killed in her Ulassai neighborhood in 1955, the artist had sworn to never return. Lai was living in Rome when the town’s mayor asked her to return to build a World War II memorial there. “I said, ‘If you want a war memorial, call another artist,’” Lai noted in 2014. “‘But if what you want is to have your place in history, call me and I’ll try to do something that has never been done anywhere else in the world.”
Once she was awarded the commission, Lai began surveying Ulassai’s residents about local legends. As a mountain town constantly threatened by the risks of falling rocks, its most prominent story was about a little girl who saved herself from a collapsing cave — and certain death — by chasing a blue ribbon that suddenly appeared outside of the cavern. Lai seized upon this ancient tale that validated the pursuit of random beauty as the impetus for her project.
However, it wasn’t easy for Lai to get villagers onboard with her vision. Many thought her plan wasn’t ‘real’ art, and some accused her of disrespecting her hometown. But Lai was determined. “She saw no breaks or contradictions between the relational works and other art forms, even so-called ‘traditional’ painting,” art historian and critic Elena Pontiggia writes in Legarsi alla Montagna (Binding to the Mountain) (Five Continents Editions, 2021), which was just released to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Ulassai art event. “What Lai really held dear was art’s ability, by including ordinary people in its creation, to encourage them to think about its power to heal, about the central importance of human relations, and the need to live in harmony with nature.”
After speaking with each villager about her intentions, Lai was able to reach a consensus. Men, women, and children gathered in Ulassai’s main square to unravel and cut the rolls of denim material. The ensuing action of linking and knotting the ribbon around town coincided with an annual Catholic procession, and later involved professional mountain climbers who attached the final piece of ribbon. The event was documented in Piero Berengo Gardin’s charming black and white photos, which Lai later painted with marker and watercolor. These images appear in the new book, along with Pontiggia’s perceptive essay about the event’s local impact and its connections to contemporary art movements. Lai later called her heartfelt, ephemeral effort “a miracle,” summing it up this way: “A town far from the fashionable cultural circuit was able to give the world a fresh insight into what art can be.”
Legasi alla Montagna (Binding to the Mountain) by Elena Pontiggia with photos by Piero Berengo Gardin is available online through Five Continents Editions.
A new piece created by Mexican artist Pedro Reyes depicting an Olmec woman is slated to go up on October 12.
“Museums have to be able to do ‘rapid response’ collecting after an event,” says HistoryMiami director Jorge Zamanillo.
The subscription-based art streaming platform, a collaboration between MMCA Korea, MCAD Manila, MAIIAM Contemporary Art Museum, and M+, is online through February 2022.
Many had previously decried the decision not to restitute the work, alleging that the museum had more to gain by keeping the important painting than the heirs.