by Sukanya DebSep 07, 2022
At the hands of Lebanese-American artist Simone Fattal, the vast eastern wing of Ocean Space (the deconsecrated Church of San Lorenzo) in Venice has been transformed into the site of a non-narrative play, a theatre of mythical characters drifting together in nonlinear time. The exhibition is presented by TBA21–Academy. In Fattal's multidisciplinary art practice, the Damascus-born, Paris-based octogenarian sculptor, translator, and publisher draws on a wide range of sources, from history, poetry, and mythology across languages and geographies, such that time itself becomes a malleable matter. Past and present reside in her work without conflict, pointing to connections and continuities rather than anachronisms and contradictions. On the pared-back metaphorical stage of her exhibition Sempre il mare, uomo libero, amerai! (Freeman, you’ll love the ocean endlessly!)—a title borrowed from Charles Baudelaire, a great influence for Fattal, and specifically from his poem The Man and the Sea, which likens the waves of the sea to a mirror for the soul—viewers encounter vaguely figurative art sculptures rendered in clay or in glass, all referring to the oceans.
A group of seven perfectly round spheres rendered in Murano glass are as seductive as precious pearls with their glowing pink hues and opalescent sheen. They speak of beauty and riches, but much like everything else in Venice, they evoke the Republic of Venice’s centrality in satisfying European hunger for goods. Venice was key in the historic Indo-Mediterranean pearl trade, a main route between the Orient and Europe. “I wanted to link the Mediterranean, especially from Venice to the Persian Gulf,” Fattal said during an artist talk held in Ocean Space’s inner courtyard. “In the trade routes, Arabs had the monopoly on everything coming from China and India through the Persian Gulf,” she explained. To break this monopoly, Europeans ventured to India, finding America along the way. “I wanted to talk about that link, which is extraordinary, because everything you see in Venice, whether it’s glasswork, weaving, or any decoration, was so much impacted by the Arab world.”
“The past is there to make us complete and be able to live today,” Fattal added. “Everything I do is informed by that.” The mercantile networks that existed across the Mediterranean since pre-Roman times carried not only goods from shore to shore but also people, cultures, languages, and traditions. On the pink spheres’ surface the multidisciplinary artist engraved an inscription in Lingua Franca, a medley of language that borrows vocabulary from Italian, Arabic, French, and Spanish, and was once spoken by merchants, pirates, prisoners, and slaves across the Mediterranean.
Deeper in the cavernous space of the deconsecrated church (the building stood unused for almost a century before Ocean Space renovated and opened it to the public in 2019), two abstract figures in glass are strung together yet kept apart by an assemblage of flat glass squares appearing like steam, or a golden with the shimmer of the late afternoon sun. The figures are a reference to Ghaylán and Máyya, lovers celebrated in classical Arab poetry and folklore. One version of their story popular in the Persian Gulf region describes them both as working in the pearl trade, each owning fleets. Alas, Máyya’s boats were faster, and so Ghaylán, inspired by the wings of the firefly, invented the sails to outpace them.
A sculpture resembling the wooden poles dotting the Venice lagoon is positioned between the pearls and the church’s Baroque altar. As these poles are meant to guide boats safely along the waters, their sculptural representation in clay is perhaps a marker signalling viewers to look up. Above, occupying one of the vacant niches of the impressive altar, a concave mirrored surface is affixed with a circular painting featuring an ancient Greek text. Fattal explains that the inscription is taken from the maxim adorning the gates to the Temple of Apollo in Delphi, which read “Know Thyself.” It’s as if the sculptural artist wants us to internalise that without acknowledging the histories that link us, many of them passing through the seas and oceans, we are unmoored, adrift in a current of unregulated innovation in the name of progress, only to repeat the same mistakes over and over again.
The full exhibition is titled Thus waves come in pairs and which also includes another commission in the church’s western wing, by Berlin-based artists Petrit Halilaj and Álvaro Urbano. The overarching project, which opened in the twin wings of Ocean Space last month, lends its title from a poem by the late Lebanese artist and poet Etel Adnan, who passed away in 2021 at the age of 96. Her writing about the sea, the plurality of water, and its lack of fixity were some of the formative ideas that shaped the two-part project’s curatorial vision. Adnan was also the life partner of Simone Fattal, and this exhibition marks Fattal’s first since Adnan’s passing. It is also worth mentioning that the church of San Lorenzo in Venice is believed to be the final resting place of one of Venice’s most famous sons, the 13th century explorer Marco Polo. Although his remains were never actually found in the church—numerous attempts to search for them were carried out throughout the 20th century, leaving the marble floor in a state of semi-permanent deconstruction—the legend lends irresistible symbolism to the exhibitions within.
There is one more sculpture in Fattal’s show, tucked inside the altar’s second empty niche. It is an abstract yellow figure that appears to be scanning the scene from above. The sculpture’s archetypical form implies a mix of cultures that taps into an eternal quality, an essence uniting societies and eras that are otherwise divided. “My characters continue to be the link between our contemporary situation and our history,” Fattal has said. “If they seem to have come from high antiquity, it is because this history is ours, and the link for me is essential. I am trying to position myself in this line that started with Sumer, and that is uninterrupted through today.”