Five figures—each standing a little more than a meter high—dominate Simone Fattal’s current exhibition, “Finding a Way,” at the Whitechapel Gallery in London. One androgenous humanoid, cast in bronze, is titled The Master (1998). Despite its powerful name, it stoops slightly, as if pausing on a long journey, resigned to its fate. Its companions are made of heavy clay, headless, with legs like tree trunks. They are, as Whitechapel director Iwona Blazwick observes in the exhibition catalogue, “part human, part architecture,” suggesting “doors, arches and windows.” Think of them as portals, then, to Fattal’s way of seeing the world.
That perspective is willfully archaic, as if the artist were an inhabitant of another, more mythic age, transported to our own. When I spoke to Fattal in October, she said that she thinks of her figures as “beyond reach, as kings or gods are.” Sometimes she sees them as warriors in procession, in service only to the most fundamental of messages: “that we existed, and that we gave a good fight.” They are heroic, at a time when heroes are hard to come by.
The Whitechapel exhibition (on view through May 15) follows a larger retrospective, presented at MoMA PS1 in New York in 2019, which sampled the full range of Fattal’s work: sculptures from different periods of her career, as well as paintings, collages, prints, and ink drawings. That show borrowed its title from Hesiod’s poem Works and Days (ca. 700 BC), one of the oldest texts in the European canon. By Fattal’s standards, that counts as recent history. Born in Damascus in 1942, she has remained grounded in that part of the world, with its unfathomably deep past. As a young artist, she frequented the excavated ruins of Sumer and read the Epic of Gilgamesh (ca. 2150–1400 BC). She went to Paris, to study archaeology at the École du Louvre. Still today, she navigates by the stars of the pre-classical world: “Greece is so perfect. You cannot go from Greece. You go towards it.”
In practice, her vocation has taken Fattal elsewhere. After her stint in Paris—where she stayed on to study philosophy at the Sorbonne—she relocated to Beirut in 1967, there meeting her partner, the poet and artist Etel Adnan. They remained in Lebanon until 1980, weathering five long years of civil war. Finally, she says, “I realized that this war was never going to end. And that I had better find a way not to lose 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 achieved in 1969 by her newly adopted land: “I thought at the time, the same way I think today, that for mankind to leave gravity and head for the universe, was the beginning of a new era. Therefore, we could count the years with the Apollo mission, the way we did with BC and AD.” (Even when thinking about recent events, you see, she takes the longest possible view.)
In comparison to her PS1 retrospective, the Whitechapel show is a focused affair. It takes its bearings from the immediate surroundings, which for Fattal means bricks and books. The former because this neighborhood was once devoted to ceramic manufacture, introduced by Flemish immigrants in the fifteenth century. The area subsequently became a center for the Jewish community; today its residents are principally Bangladeshi. But the Whitechapel building still sits on a corner of Brick Lane, and the gallery currently given over to “Finding a Way” is lined with bricks made of yellow London clay. The space was also once a library, in Victorian times, so Fattal naturally let her literary side come out in planning 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 catalogue) to Gilgamesh’s search for ever-blooming immortality; and the exhibition follows a mythological script, with its embattled warriors embarked on their own odyssey.
The exhibition includes other works too, almost all made since 2018. There are standing stelae and a small clay ziggurat on a boxlike pedestal, which contribute to the sense that one has come upon the remnants of some long-ago civilization. The walls are hung with wide-format etchings (“elongated papers,” in Fattal’s nice phrase) whose deft, semi-abstract marks are inspired by historic maps or her recollections of Barada River views. Another group of tabletop clay sculptures, the “Clouds,” mirror these horizontal compositions, coming across as the material traces of Fattal’s stray thoughts.
The figures, though, occupy center stage; and it’s on their sturdy frames that Fattal’s reputation rests. At a time when ceramics have extraordinary currency in the art world, her use of the medium stands apart for its intensity of purpose. She first came to ceramics in the late 1980s, when she revived her dormant visual art practice by taking a course at the San Francisco Art Institute. Clay immediately attracted her for multiple reasons: its emotive characteristics; its combination of strength and vulnerability; the care it requires when worked; the sense of risk when it is fired; the breathless discovery at the kiln’s opening, each time a sort of resurrection. There is a reason we have the phrase “clay body.” The material is both pliable and resistant, as people are, and to get your way with it requires both force and gentle coaxing. As clay dries, it seems to lose its vitality. “You can lose a lot of it on the way to the kiln,” Fattal comments. “It dies in your hands.”
Though Fattal’s warriors are smaller than human scale, they seem like titans. They are both monumental and archetypal (in the Jungian sense of the term), emblems not of a private symbology but a vast collective memory. To spend time among them is to gain perspective on the events of the day—including the tragedy that continues to unfold in Syria.
Fattal often says that she does not 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, who she thinks was equally in communion with the ancients). Personal expression, in her view, is overrated: “I’m not so interested in my little life.” She is looking toward a more distant horizon, one that her figures seem impelled to reach. We all have different origins and different destinations; only in our shared transit through time and space do we experience the universal.
On November 14, 2021, roughly three weeks after the opening of Fattal’s Whitechapel show, Etel Adnan died at the age of 96. The artistic journeys of the two women had been inextricably intertwined. Adnan’s paintings and illuminated handwritten poems (examples of which are on view at the Guggenheim Museum in New York through January 10) remain the best possible companions to Fattal’s art, for they have a similar quality of compressed, talismanic power. Nowhere is that more evident, or more poignant, than in the first and last stanzas of one of Adnan’s poems from The Spring Flowers Own & The Manifestations of the Voyage, published by Post-Apollo Press in 1990:
The morning after
we will sit in cafés
but I will not
I will not be
Flowers end in frozen patterns
artificial gardens cover
we get up close to midnight
search with powerful lights
the tiniest shrubs on the
A stream desperately is running to