Simone Fattal's Postcards from Pompeii

Based on visits to this unique archaeological site, the artist's new series of ceramic sculptures mine the past to remind us of the fragility of the present

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BY Ana Vukadin in EU Reviews , Exhibition Reviews | 07 OCT 21

In 79AD, Mount Vesuvius erupted catastrophically, destroying the prosperous Roman port city of Pompeii in a matter of days. The city and its inhabitants were buried under six metres of volcanic ash and pumice – a whole civilization frozen in time, its fate sealed as a unique archaeological site. This ancient city is the subject of ‘A breeze over the Mediterranean’ at ICA Milano, where the Syrian-born artist Simone Fattal deftly employs its history, ancient religions and mythologies in a series of new ceramics that mine the past to remind us of the fragility of the present. As she writes in the exhibition literature: ‘Pompeii represents what the word destiny signifies. An event that concerns all and that no one can escape.’

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Simone Fattal, 'A breeze over the Mediterranean', 2021, exhibition view, a project by ICA Milano in collaboration with Pompeii Commitment. Archaeological Matters. Courtesy: the artist; photography: Andrea Rossetti 

In many ways, Fattal is the perfect artist to tackle Pompeii, which was a melting pot of Mediterranean cultures, spanning from north Africa, Italy and Greece to present-day Lebanon. Born in Damascus in 1942, Fattal attended boarding school in Beirut and later made her way to Paris to study at the École du Louvre, where there was a special focus on archaeology, before reading philosophy at the Sorbonne. She returned to Beirut in 1969, where she began painting, but was forced to flee with her partner, the poet and painter Etel Adnan, when the Lebanese Civil War broke out in 1980. The couple settled in Sausalito, California, and it’s there that she took her first pottery class. ‘When I touched clay,’ she said in a 2019 interview with frieze, alluding to her studies, ‘it was as if all that history came rushing back.’

Hovering between antiquity and modernity, Fattal’s ceramics bear witness to this history: their bodies manually kneaded, as though they’ve been ravaged by time. In Milan, a new series of ceramics placed directly on the floor feel like ghostly presences that have to be carefully navigated. Fittingly, allusions to death are frequent. Anubis (all works 2021), the Egyptian jackal-headed deity who accompanied dead souls to the afterlife, stands tall: his long chunky legs taper off into a thin torso and head in profile. The sculpture – as with all works in the show – is glazed stoneware, in this instance clay-grey while the ankh in his right hand is a brilliant blue.

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Simone Fattal, 'A breeze over the Mediterranean', 2021, exhibition view, a project by ICA Milano in collaboration with Pompeii Commitment. Archaeological Matters. Courtesy: the artist; photography: Andrea Rossetti 

It’s in a series of smaller sculptures, however, that Fattal has fully embraced chromatic experimentation, thanks to her first-time collaboration with the ceramics workshop Bottega Gatti in Faenza – renowned for their secret recipes of iridescent glazes. Positioned in one of four side rooms dedicated to these works, Ra with Isis is arguably the finest example: the 44 cm-high sculpture, placed centre-stage in an otherwise empty room, depicts Isis attending to her father in his last moments of life, as his magical powers are conferred on her, rendering her one of the most important deities of mourning, healing and motherhood. Recognizable by his wings and bird-shaped head, Ra looks like he is set to take flight in an explosion of iridescent golds, coppers, blues and greens, while Isis, all black, sombre, is positioned erect by his side.

Another exceptional piece is Europa and the Sacred Bull, in which the Phoenician princess is depicted tightly hugging the bull – Zeus in one of his many animal disguises – as he carries her from her native Sidon, in present-day Lebanon, to Crete. Although readings of this myth differ, here Europa’s arms are lovingly wrapped around the bull, a snapshot of a story of love and exile. Such is the power of Fattal: like the best artists and storytellers, she poetically imbues myths and history with universality. Her sculptures stand as witnesses to remind us of life’s ephemerality and horror, but also its beauty and resilience.

Simone Fattal's ‘A breeze over the Mediterranean’ is on view at ICA Milano, until 9 January 2022.

Main image: Simone Fattal, 'A breeze over the Mediterranean', 2021, exhibition view, a project by ICA Milano in collaboration with Pompeii Commitment. Archaeological Matters. Courtesy: the artist; photography: Andrea Rossetti 

Ana Vukadin is a writer, translator and editor who lives in Jesi, Italy.

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