Simone Fattal on mystical quest at London’s Whitechapel Gallery – ARTnews.com



Five figures, each just over a meter tall, dominate Simone Fattal’s current exhibition, “Finding a Way” at the Whitechapel Gallery in London. An androgenic humanoid, cast in bronze, is titled The master (1998). Despite its powerful name, it leans slightly, as if stopping on a long journey, resigned to its fate. His companions are made of heavy clay, headless, with legs like tree trunks. They are, as Whitechapel director Iwona Blazwick observes in the exhibition catalog, “part human, part architecture”, suggesting “doors, arches and windows”. Think of them as portals, then, to how Fattal sees the world.

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This perspective is deliberately archaic, as if the artist were an inhabitant of another, more mythical age, transported to our own. When I spoke to Fattal in October, she said that she viewed her characters as “out of reach, like kings or gods.” Sometimes she sees them as warriors in procession, serving only the most basic message: “that we existed, and that we fought well”. They are heroic at a time when heroes are hard to find.

The Whitechapel exhibition (on view until May 15) follows a larger retrospective, presented at MoMA PS1 in New York in 2019, which sampled all of Fattal’s work: sculptures from different periods of his career, as well as paintings, collages, prints, and ink drawings. This show borrowed its title from Hesiod’s poem Works and days (circa 700 BC), one of the oldest texts in the European canon. By Fattal’s standards, this counts as recent history. Born in Damascus in 1942, she has remained anchored in this part of the world with an unfathomable past. As a young artist, she frequented the excavated ruins of Sumer and read the The epic of Gilgamesh (circa 2150-1400 BC). She went to Paris to study archeology at the École du Louvre. Even today, she sails among the stars of the pre-classic world: “Greece is so perfect. You can’t go from Greece. You go to her.

A black line horizontal sketch of a grove of trees and several buildings in the Middle East with hills in the background

On the banks of the Barada I (Along the Barada I), 2020, etching, approx. 15 by 44 inches.
Photo Fabrice Gibert, © Galerie Lelong & Co., courtesy Simone Fattal

In practice, his vocation took Fattal elsewhere. After moving to Paris, where she stayed to study philosophy at the Sorbonne, she moved to Beirut in 1967, where she met her partner, the poet and artist Etel Adnan. They remained in Lebanon until 1980, going through five long years of civil war. Finally, she said, “I realized this war was never going to end. And that I’d better find a way not to waste my life waiting. She and Adnan moved to California, where Fattal founded an independent publishing house for poetry and experimental fiction. It is called Post-Apollo Press, an allusion to the moon landing made in 1969 by his new adopted land: the start of a new era. Therefore, we could count the years with the Apollo mission, as we did with BC and AD. (Even thinking of recent events, you see, she has the longest possible vision.)

Compared to its PS1 retrospective, the Whitechapel show is a focused affair. He takes his bearings in the immediate environment, which for Fattal means bricks and books. The first because this district was once dedicated to the manufacture of ceramics, introduced by Flemish immigrants in the 15th century. The neighborhood later became a center for the Jewish community; today, its inhabitants are mainly Bangladeshis. But the Whitechapel building still stands on a corner of Brick Lane, and the gallery currently devoted to ‘Finding a Way’ is lined with yellow London terracotta bricks. The space was also once a library in the Victorian era, so Fattal naturally let his literary side shine in the planning of the show. A single ceramic flower is planted in the mortar of a wall, an allusion (according to an interview with the artist in the Whitechapel catalog) to Gilgamesh’s search for ever-flourishing immortality; and the exhibition follows a mythological storyline, with its besieged warriors embarked on their own odyssey.

Two box-shaped plinths, one bearing small stylized cloud sculptures, the other a small ziggurat, with five etchings on the back wall.

View of the “Finding a Way” exhibition, showing Fattal’s cloud and ziggurat sculptures with five engravings on the back wall.
Photo Jack Hems

The exhibition also includes other works, almost all produced since 2018. There are standing stelae and a small clay ziggurat on a box-shaped pedestal, which contribute to the feeling that one has stumbled upon the remains of ‘an ancient civilization. The walls are adorned with large-format engravings (“elongated papers,” to use Fattal’s beautiful expression) whose skilful, semi-abstract markings are inspired by historical maps or his memories of views over the Barada River. Another group of clay table sculptures, the “Clouds”, reflect these horizontal compositions, appearing as material traces of Fattal’s stray thoughts.

Numbers, however, take center stage; and it is on their sturdy frames that Fattal’s reputation rests. At a time when ceramics are extremely topical in the art world, his use of the medium is distinguished by its intensity of purpose. She first became interested in ceramics in the late 1980s, when she revived her sleepy visual arts practice by taking a course at the San Francisco Art Institute. Clay immediately attracted her for multiple reasons: her emotional characteristics; its combination of strength and vulnerability; the care it requires when it is worked; the feeling of risk when fired; the breathless discovery at the opening of the oven, each time a sort of resurrection. There is a reason we have the expression “clay body”. The material is both soft and tough, just like people are, and to get through it requires both strength and softness. As it dries, the clay seems to lose its vitality. “You can lose a lot of it on the way to the oven,” comments Fattal. “He is dying in your hands.

A lumpy, slightly arched humanoid figure in bronze with large feet.

Installation view of The master, 1998, bronze, approx. 40 inches tall.
Jack hemlines

Although Fattal’s warriors are smaller than a human size, they look like titans. They are both monumental and archetypal (in the Jungian sense of the term), emblems not of a private symbology but of a vast collective memory. Spending time among them means taking a step back from the events of the day, including the tragedy that continues to unfold in Syria.

Fattal often says that she doesn’t feel like an artist at all, in the modern, professional sense of the term; nor does she feel much affinity with such practitioners (with a few exceptions, notably Henry Moore, whom she believes is also in communion with the elders). The personal expression, according to her, is overrated: “I am not so interested in my little life. She looks towards a more distant horizon, a horizon that her characters seem driven to reach. We all have different origins and destinations; it is only in our common transit through time and space that we experience the universal.

On November 14, 2021, about three weeks after the opening of Fattal’s show in Whitechapel, Etel Adnan passed away at the age of 96. The artistic paths of the two women were inextricably linked. Adnan’s paintings and illuminated handwritten poems (examples of which are on display at the Guggenheim Museum in New York until January 10) remain Fattal’s best possible companions, as they have a similar quality of compressed power and talismanic. Nowhere is this more evident or more poignant than in the first and last verses of one of Adnan’s poems by Clean Spring Flowers and Travel Events, published by Post-Apollo Press in 1990:

Simone Fattal, 2021.

Simone Fattal, 2021.
Europium Photo (Julia Andréone and Ghazaal Vojdani)

The next morning

my death

we will sit in cafes

but i am not going

be there

I will not be

[…]

Flowers end with frozen patterns

artificial garden cover

The floors

we get up around midnight

search with powerful lights

the smallest shrubs of the

meadows

A stream flows desperately towards

the ocean


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