Up the road, at her tomb, a handful of names recur throughout the graveyard – Contu, Lai, Serra, Chilotti, Puddu, Pilia. In the afternoon, old men gather to drink and play cards at a bar which, like both graveyard and gallery, looks out and down the valley. In a town governed by ritual, repetition and regularity, Lai’s work combines local traditions with contemporary artistry. One of her loom sculptures occupies the ceiling of the disused grain wash house. The school playground is decorated with a game of her design. Concrete road-side murals depicting goats hail drivers of tiny beaten Fiats and cross-island buses in and out of town. Directly above one is a weaving cooperative, Su Marmuri, to which Lai donated a number of works. Four women wearing ear protectors bend over 100-year-old looms, picking threads through the warp with deft, swift motions. A long rug near completion rolls under the loom’s body, and cushion covers bearing Lai’s distinctive goats emerge in lines of black Sardinian wool.
Her best-known work, Legarsi alla Montagna (Bind to the Mountain), which took place in 1981 in Ulassai, was inspired by the local tale of a girl who escaped a mountain landslide by following the vision of a blue ribbon. Over a single day each house was tied to its neighbours with strips of blue cloth and a final piece attached to the mountain overlooking the town. For Lai the ribbon symbolised the hope and salvation offered by art, imagination and play, but its consequences were real. Having initially foundered amid long-standing feuds, the intervention was rescued when a group of townswomen took it upon themselves to dispel the rancour and make the project happen. An air of celebration suffuses the film documenting the day, which is on show at the gallery. Vast swathes of cloth are torn up in a sunbaked square, women in black and men in caps roll up strips as if gleaning after harvest, and children throw spools into the air with delight. The ribbon that festooned the town overran its original story – Lai’s art literally bound Ulassai together.