Sardinia and its Double. Réalité virtuelle in the Stazione dell’Arte in Ulassai.

Caterina Lisini, Alberto Pireddu

The first definition of «réalité virtuelle» appeared in the pages of Antonin Artaud's fundamental essay from 1938, Le théâtre et son double, in which the author identifies a «mysterious identity of essence» between alchemy and theater, two arts «so to speak virtual, and do not carry their end or their reality within themselves».
Whereas  «alchemy, through its symbols, is the spiritual Double of an operation which functions only on the level of real matter», the only one that «actually turns all matter into gold» (Artaud 1968, p. 165), the theater appears as the «Double» of a reality that is more complex than the everyday reality of which, through time, it has become a simple mirroring: «All true alchemists– writes Artaud –  know that the alchemical symbol is a mirage as the theater is a mirage. And this perpetual allusion to the materials, and the principle of the theater found in almost all alchemical books should be understood as the expression of an identity (of which alchemists were extremely aware) existing between the world in which the characters, objects, images, and in general way all that constitutes the virtual reality of the theater develops, and the purely fictitious and illusory world in wich the symbols of alchemy are evolved». (1968, p. 166).
Paraphrasing Artaud, a parallel can be identified between the virtual reality of the theatre and the one that arises from the artistic universe of Maria Lai, in which there is certainly an alchemic element, evident in its capacity to sublimate, not in gold, but in pure beauty, even the poorest of objects (a thread, a loom, a drape...).
In her case the “Double” is Sardinia with its history of thousands of years, on which Lai operates a very personal representation, creating characters, objects and images through an art that is first and foremost knowledge and discipline, and which finds in the forms and type of her museum a captivating manifestation.

As has been observed by scholars and critics alike1, in contemporary society the function of the museum seems to have undergone a deep transformation: from container of collections, safekeeper and producer of culture, it tends to configure itself today as a many-sided cultural space destined prevailingly to entertaining a hopefully increasingly large public, in which the involvement of the spectator is entrusted especially to the perceptive component, which includes curatorial requirements, as well as scenographic and theatrical, in a form of usage and enjoyment that is essentially sensory and aesthetic.
In the more convincing realisations over the past decades, the museum seems however to maintain its aspirations to the dimension as a place which is dense in meanings rather than to dilute itself into a simple container-stage for the “representation” of art, of which the dramatic theatralisation of Libeskind's Jewish Museum in Berlin is perhaps one of the denser and most eloquent examples.
However, and despite globalisation, most contemporary museums, including those which are more prominent and internationally relevant, «bear evident traces of their specific histories and of their diversity in terms of the culture and social sensibility of their contexts of origin», as pointed out by Fulvio Irace (2009). Every museum in fact reflects the rooting to an intellectual and social territory which in general defines the attitude of a certain society toward cultural complexity and the spiritual values expressed by its own history.
This singularity is particularly evident in the Italian context which, according to Andrea Carandini (2009), is not well suited, with few exceptions, to the large global museum of ephemeral perceptions and perspectives with vanishing points, while, on the contrary «offering true and actual beauty fabrics articulated in countrysides, villages, cities and museums».
Maria Lai's Stazione dell’Arte, in its capacity to evoke a territory, in its action of triggering the remembrance of a collective identity, constitutes a possible meaning, in the sense determined by Carandini, of the composite range of variations of the contemporary museum. A museum which is small in size, closely linked to the personality and poetics of the artist, and in an intrinsic relationship with the territory it belongs to and with the historical and cultural identity of the population that lives in it. A museum which is also deeply linked to the contemporariness of artistic endeavour, due to the central role of the sensory experience and of the perceptive aspect, understood however as actual learning activities, which involve thought and imagination in a continuous reflection on poetic language and the meaning of the exhibitions. «The work of art – affirms Maria Lai – is a mutual play between vision and thought: each one animates and illuminates the other in a single experience» (2004a, now in Pontiggia 2017, p. 355).

The Stazione dell’Arte
Placed on an isolated crag facing the village of Ulassai and the mountain above it, the Museum is nothing other than the bare and essential recovery of the old railway station, which was abandoned at the end of the Fifties and the complementary articulation in the surrounding territory of works by the artist which involve as protagonists some pre-existing buildings and the landscape as a whole, grasped in its material features, as well as in its evocative value: a very particular museum, without a fixed exhibition or set-up, and inextricably linked to the varied constellation of interventions envisaged for the territory, true «artistic sites at your fingertips»2, according to a successful expression coined by Maria Lai.
The central core of the museum is the complex of buildings which were part of the small terminal station of the Gairo-Jerzu railway line3: three simple parallelepiped buildings, long and narrow, with double-pitched roofs, among which the old house of the station master, located at the edge of the lot and in proximity to the access, was transformed into the visitors reception area, including g a ticket office and bookshop, while the passenger building and the train depot were transformed into exhibition spaces and for the conservation of the pieces donated by the artist to the community of Ulassai.
The re-destination intervention, entrusted to the architects Sergio Aruanno, Nazario Fusco, Luigi Corgiolu and the engineer Demetrio Artizzu, who worked in close collaboration with the Foundation and with Maria Lai herself, who was directly involved in the project, goes back to the year 20064 (the Stazione dell’Arte was inaugurated on July 8, 2006) and consisted in minimal interventions involving mostly the cleaning and renovation of the structure without any additional volumes or alterations to the distributive or functional organisation, except for those strictly necessary for the new destination.
A simple continuous lining in fireproof timber, conceived for allowing a greater flexibility of both exhibition and set-up capacity, encloses the whole of the interior surfaces with a white spatial abstraction which maintains intact the domestic appearance and proportions of the old architectural structures.
There are few breaks on the continuous interior cladding, apart from some isolated and functional holes pierced into it, which accentuates the construction of a clear-cut geometry, of a muted casket which serves as a scenic backdrop for the works of art. And the three buildings, isolated on the wide elevated flat surface where the old tracks arrived, now endowed with new meaning, assume an essential and dispersed stance, as small architectures with a poetic resonance which emanate an alchemical and sacral aura.
As the main deposit for the artist's production, the Station is a sort of herbarium, a collection of figures that are the signs and terms of her art – the Nativity scenes, the loaves, the looms, the geographies, the sewn books and the terracotta books...‒, not crystallised in the unchanging interpretation of a permanent exhibition, yet cyclically re-mounted in a succession of re-workings and re-interventions, always different, which at each time indicate new interpretative perspectives.
Whereas in the contemporary project of the global museum traditional typological representation tends to become weaker, in favour of a dominant invention of the spectacular perception device, the museum at Ulassai, in its tenacious preservation of simple service typologies, familiar to a community and reconverted into abstraction, can become the paradigm of a specific museum typology, in which the architectural device loses some of its dimensional consistency and functional articulation, but not its semantic significance, spreading throughout the territory and the landscape, with which it blends, from which it feeds, and of which it becomes an interpreter. A different museum hypothesis, in which the physical organisation of the places and exhibition buildings is inextricably linked to the pieces exhibited, to the development of the artistic path of the artist, to the story of the territory, to the traditions and everyday gestures that are intrinsic to the landscape, both built and natural.
Other Italian examples seem to confirm the strength and value of such a unique, and only apparently radical choice. Worth recalling, in this context, are the Fondazione Emilio e Annabianca Vedova at the Magazzini del Sale in Venice, the Ex Seccatoi del Tabacco, which at Città di Castello implements the exhibition spaces already devoted to Alberto Burri in the halls of Palazzo Albizzini or, if we wish to remain in Sardinia, the Nivola Museum in Orani, built following the design by Peter Chermayeff and Umberto Floris within the old wash house and subsequently expanded.
The museum designed by Renzo Piano and Alessandro Traldi on the Fondamenta delle Zattere is a «stage for the universe of Emilio Vedova» (Eccheli 2016, p. 22), animated only by the almost theatrical movement of the artist's canvases. The space thus obtained, as pointed out by Massimo Cacciari, certainly recalls Vedova's idea of the continuum with which the work is placed in very close relation: «it is a dark cave that is there waiting to devour you, exactly as Vedova narrated his relationship with the great canvases of his work, a sort of 'devouring', as if he were devoured by his work as a painter» (Traldi 2009, p. 163).
The Burri Foundation was created under the aegis of the artist himself, who personally chose the architectures, supervised their renovation for exhibition purposes and selected the works to be exhibited. At Palazzo Albizzini, as in the hangars of the Ex Seccatoi, what fascinated the artist was the rational simplicity of the spaces, to the point that the relationship with the extraordinary dimensions of the spaces, originally designated for drying tobacco, had the force to direct his research toward a more complex and monumental art.
At Orani, the choice of a place dear to the artist and to the community was strongly supported by Nivola's wife, Ruth Guggenheim, who placed there the sculptural works of the master, with a particular attention to the concluding phase of his career as an artist.
The three examples mentioned above can be grouped together with the Station at Ulassai for a series of reasons, beginning with the choice of redeeming, through art, architectures which would have otherwise remained abandoned and unused, subtracting the museum to the specificity of a very precise type. Whereas in Venice Piano's extremely refined intervention demonstrates a deep respect for those Magazzini, which Vedova had arduously defended from demolition, thus contributing to recognise their historical-monumental value, at Città di Castello, Orani and Ulassai, the simplicity of the intervention on the pre-existing structures reveals a precise strategy in which pragmatic questions concerning an economy of means join forces with a poetics of silence, aimed at favouring the encounter with the artists and their places without any additional mediation.

Artistic sites at your fingertips
If the building of the Stazione dell’Arte is presented as the transformation of a real place, crossroads of departures and arrivals, in a poetical ideal location, starting point for new cultural itineraries, all around it, in the rugged basin of Ulassai's territory and spread out along the streets of the village, the second nature of the museum is unfolded, conceived in the tension between “listening” and representation of a “somewhere else”: «the landscape is not a place to be decorated – affirms Maria Lai, writing to her friend, the critic Francesco Vincitorio – it remains a protagonist and art is created to give it a voice» (2000, p. 48).
Almost a palimpsest for a new writing, this extraordinary open-air museum5, like a travel atlas, keeps together and recomposes fragments of the natural and built landscapes of Ulassai, as signs of an ancient history implemented with new meanings and a new weft of relationships.
Thus the old washing house, a place where the women of the village traditionally met, is transfigured into an art event through interventions carried out by Lai herself and by her artist friends Costantino Nivola, Guido Strazza and Luigi Veronesi. To cross the threshold of this small early 20th century building6, single storeyed and with a pitched roof, marked on three sides by full-height arched openings, is like visiting another museum hall: within it Lai built, on the outline of exposed water pipes, the incomplete and transformed figure of an ancient loom, suspending it from the twelve by four meters ceiling like a large-scale sculpture, the Telaio soffitto (The Ceiling Loom), while Nivola brought back to life the granite tanks where the women did their washing, installing with the help of wiry metallic supports a continuous water feature whose expressive effect is highlighted by the calculated sonority of the flow of water and the dripstones, the Fontana sonora (The Sounding Fountain); on the outside, instead, in the recess of the arches on the minor sides of the building, Luigi Veronesi composed the Fontana della sorgente (The Fountain of the Spring) and Guido Strazza created the Fontana del grano (The Fountain of Wheat), redesigning the small square in front of the building.
Overall a choral intervention that transformed a small building lying at the centre of the life of the village's community into a strongly symbolic event in which painting, sculpture and architect are singularly combined with a fascinating expressive effect.
Beyond the Wash house, in the rest of the old hamlet, Lai's various interventions involve the impervious landscape of the mountain of Ogliastra in the life of the Museum, in a close relationship between physical space, place and representation. Almost as if wishing to mend through art a landscape that has been increasingly wounded by landslides and cement, three of the roads that connect Ulassai to the sea and to its wilder backcountry are involved in a project of «aesthetic renovation» (Lai and Pala 2006, p. 52) that operates on the natural height disparities and on the large surfaces of the powerful substruction walls.
In the direction of the sanctuary of Santa Barbara, lies La strada del rito (The rite road), a narrative in the form of fragments along a path that is approximately seven kilometres long, and in which the artist imagines to «give voice to the memory of stones» (Lai and Pala 2006, p. 53), re-writing in the intentionally child-like forms of everyday foods the evangelical miracle of the multiplication of the bread and the fish, which reconnects to the local tradition of the bread at the feasts and to the abundance of fish in the numerous springs in the mountains. In the direction of the sea, the road of Le capre cucite (The sewn goats) transforms the wall that dominates the valley of the Pardu into a great canvas, in some parts white like a sheet drying out in the sun, on which to sew, using reinforcing rods and high-tension wires, numerous goats whose elementary geometries recall those of homespun fabrics. To the north, finally, toward the Grotta Su Marmuri and the dangers of which it is one of the most well-known symbols, the retaining walls that introduce the grotto become Il muro del groviglio (The tangle wall) which accommodates on its surfaces some thoughts by her friend and teacher Salvatore Cambosu, carved into the concrete while it was still humid, and left as an invitation to reading and reflection for those who choose to cross those woods on their way toward the peaks.
Not far from there is La casa delle inquietudini (The house of concerns), last “anomalous” hall of the Museum which gathers, in a recovered abandoned building of no special quality, a series of black painted demons, scary shadows of monitor lizards and dragons which symbolise the anxiety of an entire community, and which is traversed in order to reach, in the immediate vicinity, La scarpata (The Slope), a large-scale space that symbolically marks the end of the itinerary. Placed on the slopes of the hill, it stands on what once was a landfill, a «unique space, in the solitude of the wild landscape» (Cuccu and Lai 2002, p. 17), inserted as a theatrical backdrop suspended behind the village and its valley: like a large trapezoid geography, metaphor of the world history and of human civilisation, it is constructed with elements in stone and metal capable of reverberating light even at a great distance, marking the passing of time like a majestic sundial.
Thus, unlike common parks destined to accommodate the work of an artist, the museum is built in time, unwinding throughout an itinerary of re-signified architectures and works of substruction or territorial arrangement, in the manner of notations and signs of a large-scale aesthetic alphabet, in which once and again it is the natural and urban scenery, with its values in terms of historical or landscape representation, that dictate the rhythmic cadence.
In full accord with Maria Lai's particular narrative attitude, the museum reflects an absolutely particular poetics, linked to the imaginary which is deposited in the traditions and roots of a beloved place, yet at the same time capable of refusing any folklorist stances and of creatively prefiguring research and tendencies subsequently widely affirmed, such as the attention to material culture or the symbiotic relationship to the landscape, as well  as the capacity to interpret in a domestic and choral sense contemporary forms of art such as performances, installations and environmental interventions.
In this sense, rather than speaking of a museum-territory it is perhaps more appropriate to speak of a polycentric and polysemic museum, identified in a multiple museum consisting of the poetics of the artist, of the places and settlement it belongs to, of simple buildings, loaded however with memory and symbolic value.

Sardinia and its “Double”
In our contemporary era in which the museum tends to accommodate an undifferentiated present, which apparently annuls hierarchies and cultural differences, and in which the relationship to the past and to knowledge tends to be increasingly flattened by the universal uniformity of the web, it is the rhabdomantic capacity of memory, with its underground faculty of referring to non-evident and systematic relationships, in some ways alchemical yet no less real and deep, that constitutes the essence and physical organisation of Maria Lai's museum.
The Stazione dell’Arte, in its rarefied architectural consistency, is like a great weft woven on the territory of Ulassai, which reveals a diverse virtual reality, in the construction of the “Double” of a Sardinia, designed in the enigmatic intertwining between impervious territories and the ensemble of legends, myths and traditions. As highlighted by Elena Pontiggia (2017, p. 326), in Maria Lai's world «there is no piece of art that is not a weaving together of relationships […] and there is no knowledge that is not the construction of logical and intellectual links. Weaving, in short, is a metaphor for the culture and history of mankind».

1  Among the many texts on the topic it is worth recalling, in relation to the thesis maintained in this paper: Forster K. W. (1991); Werner P. (2005); Jean Clair (2008); Casabella n. 778 (2009); Cristofano M. and Palazzetti C., eds. (2011); Montanari T. and Trione V. (2017).
2  Maria Lai invented this terminology for the title of a work consisting on four decks of cards which included words and signs for discussing topics such as making art, interpreting art and redefining art, with a clear artistic and educational purpose. According to this definition, also the interventions on the territory which compose the museum can be intended. See Lai M. (2002).
3  The Gairo-Jerzu railway, inaugurated in 1893, which followed a mountain layout that is approximately 9 kms long, connected the inland villages in the province of Ogliastra with the Mandas-Arbatax regional line. Very much loved by the local population, it was abandoned in 1956.
4  The Stazione dell'Arte Foundation was created in 2006 following the donation of over one hundred and fifty pieces of art by the artist to the community of Ulassai – the most important public collection devoted to her - and manages the activities of the Stazione dell’Arte. That same year the construction of the museum began, which was completed in 2008 with the construction and organisation of the painting collection and depot by the architect Sergio Aruanno and the engineer emetrio Artizzu. In 2019, by initiative of the current artistic director Davide Mariani, the original paving was substituted by black  carpetting.
5  The works made by Maria Lai in Ulassai are: Via Crucis, 1981; Il telaio-soffitto, 1982; Il lavatoio, 1982-1989 (M. Lai, C. Nivola, G. Strazza, L. Veronesi); Le capre cucite, 1992; La strada del rito, 1992; La scarpata, 1993; Le cinque esse, 1998 (placed as panels on the facade of the museum after its inauguration); Il volo del gioco dell’oca, 2003; La lavagna, 2003; Libretti murati, 2003; Il muro del groviglio, 2004; La casa delle inquietudini, 2005; Pastorello mattiniero, 2005; Fiabe intrecciate, a Gramsci, 2007; La cattura dell’ala del vento, 2009. On September 8, 1981, she concluded the event Legarsi alla montagna, with an extraordinary participation from the entire village, thus creating the first “relational art” work in Italy. Also the works by Guido Strazza (Alla luce, 2015) and Marcello Maloberti (Cuore mio, 2019) can be considered as part of the great open-air museum of Ulassai. On the works by Maria Lai in Ulassai see Mariani D. (2019b).
6  The building was constructed between 1903 and 1905 by the engineer Ernesto Ravot, the typical figure of the municipal technician in Italy during the reign of Umberto I. He also built the village's town hall.

Bibliographic References
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