through an affective journey of memory-images Finding a Way: Simone Fattal’s solo show at the Whitechapel Gallery

«In critical circles, nostalgia has a negative, even decadent connotation. But the etymology of the word uncovers other meanings. It comes from the Greek nostos, a return home, and algos, pain. According to Jane Gallop after “homesickness” and “melancholy regret” in the dictionary there is a third definition of nostalgia, which is “unsatisfied desire”. And that is what the word has always implied to me: unconsummated desire kept alive by private forays into the cultural spaces of memory» [1]

Going back home has commonly been associated with a positive glimpse into the future. “Dream” would probably not be the best way to describe it as the insisting idea of it inevitably happening would quickly pierce through any layers of enchantment or imagination. It is perhaps more accurate, however less hopeful, to view this journey as a longing for an expectation of the past. Moving towards this still-to-be-fulfilled-desire is the driving force behind Finding a Way, Simone Fattal’s current show at the Whitechapel Gallery. Idealised against the migration streams brought by the pandemic, the exhibition is a tale on returning home, spirituality, displacement and memory told through ghostly ripples of nostalgia.

We are greeted by five clay and bronze figures in the middle of a journey, a physical and spiritual procession. Engulfed in an ancient landscape of sculptures and watercolours, collages and esoteric symbols, the overall fragmented nature of the works on show assert Fattal’s delicate yet complex braiding of history and memory.

In order to narrate the odyssey into their inner workings there could not be a more fitting material than clay. Carrying with it an ancestral substance and a primitive starting point, clay «is a kind of originating material that precedes other kinds of artistic activity.»[2] Preceded by Theaster Gates’ solo show A Clay Sermon, Finding a Way develops Gates’ idea that «clay works like poetry.»[3] Albeit in different ways, both artists find common ground on clay’s power to hold metaphor and to, due to their geological nature, encapsulate a multitude of chronological layers. Although accepting of the inevitability of moving forward, Fattal glimpses at the idea that time does not necessarily equal duration – it is able to leap forward, reverse, go against and stand by itself – like poetry.  

Earlier commissions by Sébastien Delot, the three etchings on show portray city plans of Damascus, where the artist was born. Drawn from childhood memories and reminiscent of architectural top views, Vers les Omeyyades (2020), is an «exercise to actually represent what you remember and try to be exact at the same time» [4] This architectural need for accuracy set against the elusive nature of recollection put forward Finding a Way‘s non-linear web of past, present and future. Fattal’s intersection of timelines is further aided by the overarching abstract forms populating the gallery – both human and structural. The latter, marked by steles, carved standing stones and architectural pillars all point towards the human imaginary of excavation sites, ancient temples, windows into a long-gone past standing as «moments of memories.»[5]. Articulating questions of memory as place, Finding a Way does not only question as much as it actively participates on dissecting the political forays of cultural memory and archeology. Encompassing temporal and historical paradoxes, ruins stand as a testament of the past while projecting us into the future. Contrary to popular belief, the state of ruin, or the defacing of the original, are not symptoms of forgetfulness and abandonment. Rather, through an intricate weaving of opposites, remembering is to ruins what forgetting is to memory. Without the natural tendency for memory to vanish and material surfaces to degrade over time there would be no margin for imagination. These fragmented remnants must have «a certain (perhaps indeterminate) amount of a built structure still standing for us to refer to it as a ruin and not merely a heap of rubble.» [6] They act as fictional mirages of time and place, triggers which allows us to go back and «restore the possibility of the past.» [7]

It is in this way that absence becomes the main character in the patchy, blurry, elusive processes of recollection. Always based on images of the past, this absence allows for imagination to be set in motion: «the act of imagination (…) is an incantation destined to produce the object of one’s thought, the thing one desires, in a manner that one can take possession of it.» [8] Propelled by the desired object not-being-there, the reflective journey into the past is activated. The memory-image, operating in-between a memory which recalls and a memory which repeats, paints the fugitive space of both hallucination and fiction. Recollecting becomes then not a quick-flash into the past but an imagination’s exercise of what used to be.

Fattal’s approach on returning home is not a simple case of revisiting the past. It discloses its seduction, which we carry and are inevitably drawn to. This desire, however, is not one for mummification or stillness, in which case fixity would become an imposing presence on the fluidity of remembering. Going back home is memory choreographed through the imagetic ruins of what was against the impossibility of ever fully returning. This journey is nothing more than its own imagetic anticipation – not a rekindling as we might think. And, much like the Derridaesque death-drive, this memory is always, inevitably, directed towards the future. Completing this journey is thus “not about rebuilding the mythical place called home (but about) perpetually deferring the homecoming itself.”[9]

Finding a Way breaks the anxiety of historical continuity through a poetic outlook on the memory-images that pave the way past. It is on show until the 22nd of June at the Whitechapel Gallery in London.



[1] Davey, Moyra. Index Cards (2021) London: Fitzcarraldo Editions.

[2],3 Yee, Lydia (Host). (November 2021) Theaster Gates: A Clay Sermon. In Hear Now (No.14). Whitechapel Gallery.

[4], 5 Smith, Laura (Host). ( ) Simone Fattal: Finding a Way. In Hear Now (No. 12). Whitechapel Gallery.

[6] Dillon, Brian ( ) A Short History of Decay. In B. Dillon (Ed.), Ruins (pp. 10 – 19 ). London: Whitechapel Gallery; Cambridge: The MIT Press.

[7] Deleuze, Gilles (1989) Cinema 2: The Time-Image. London: Athlone Press.

[8] Sarte, Jean-Paul. (2010) The Imaginary: A Phenomenological Psychology of the Imagination. Oxfordshire: Routledge.

[9] Boyn, Svetlana (2002). The Future of Nostalgia. New York: Basic Books.

Inês Mena Silva (Porto, 1996) Writer, editor and artistic director. She holds a degree in Graphic and Communication Design at Central Saint Martins, London, where she lived and worked until 2020, with an interim study period in The Hague, Netherlands, in the areas of curation and art criticism at Leiden University. Since then, Inês has been part of editorial projects in London, such as Modern Matter and Émergent magazines, where she assumed art direction, writing and editing roles. Her work, directed towards a critic and poetic view of art, investigates the role of memory and the in-between status in the creation of spatio-temporal mythologies. Inês currently lives and works between Porto and Paris.

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