Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Oceans of intrigue

Since the opening last Friday, of Tania Kovats’s exhibition at Hestercome it seems to have done nothing but rain! Let’s hope the exhibition titled ‘Oceans’ that comprises 365 bottles of donated sea water, sculptural reefs, atlases and other works that both explore, document and use water as both source and material for the work is not prophetic of things to come!  

I find it exciting (not to mention an incredible opportunity for Taunton) that Kovats has been chosen to be the second exhibition at the recently opened Hestercombe House, Somerset. The debut show, ‘Leaping the Fence’ opened in May 2014* and exhibited the work of sixteen contemporary artists from Mark Wallinger to Mike Nelson. Kovats (who also had a piece in that first exhibition) is the first artist to have a solo show here which includes a new piece, ‘Sea Mark for Hestercombe’ (2014) above the staircase and entrance hall as well as bringing together previous work(s) from the exhibition ‘Drawing Water’ shown recently at The Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh. (Regular readers will note that I wrote about the book which accompanied that exhibition in a previous blog post.**)  

There are two aspects of Kovats’s work in particular that I’m glad have been presented into the show at Hestercombe. The first being an emphasis on the importance of drawing in Kovats’s practice; where drawing is used as a means of exploration, investigation, documentation, measurement, action – consequence –the passing of time. In ‘Oceans’ the first thing that hits you on the impressive stairway is a drawing or wall work of tiled, inky brushstrokes that intermediate horizontally disappearing into an imaginary horizon like a series of puddles or clouds. Could they also be islands? Or tide marks? A similar piece in another room later reveals that the marks to be the broken surface of the sea, ‘the wet marks originally made on the tiles were dried and were fired and return to their fluid origins, glossy and liquid’. Despite learning this, they remain ambiguously still quite abstract, quite meditative. Elsewhere there are multiple drawings made from evaporated sea salt water and ink on blotting paper. They’re exploratory and alchemic in their seemingly simple curiosity of, ‘what happens when I put this together with that and let time pass. It produces spontaneous, seemingly effortless, often beautiful (if I may state my personal opinion) and uncontrived results. For Kovats, perhaps this method of drawing which relies less on the ‘hand of the artist’ and more on the passing of time, is a more authentic reflection of nature and properties of the sea water. In her words,  

“I let a drawing make itself. I am not drawing anything but the other drawings the ink retains its fluidity and floods the paper...echoing the movements and forms of water in nature.”

'Sea Mark for Hestercombe' (2014) Tania Kovats ***

 The second aspect brought from Edinburgh to Hestercombe is in the presentation of a variety of works that allows for multiple meanings on the same theme. I shall explain, ‘Drawing Water’ presented work from  map-makers, writers, shipbuilders, whalers, soldiers, sailors, artists, archaeologists, cartographers, scientists, uranographers (mapping stars), engineers and dreamers  all of whom have used drawing as a way of searching, understanding and looking at water and our use/connection to it. In ‘Oceans’ we see how that influence has filtered (pardon the pun) into different sides of Kovats’s practice; from the drawing based works previously mentioned, to the sculptural and participatory nature of the piece 'All the sea'. The following quote taken from ‘Drawing Water’ by archaeologist Colin Renfrew reiterates this cross-over and shift in contemporary visual arts practice,  

“Over the past century or so the visual arts have transformed themselves from their preoccupation with beauty and the representation of the world into something much more radical...into what might be described as a vast, uncoordinated yet somehow enormously effective research programme that looks critically at what we are and how we know what we are.” 

'All the sea' (2012-14) Tania Kovats

In ‘All the Sea’ (2012-14) 365 bottles of seawater have been collected and sent to the artist from individuals all around the world forming a library of seas all gathered in one place. It is a little bit reminiscent of Susan Hiller’s ‘Homage to Joseph Beuys’ (1969-2011) in which the artist collected antique bottles filled with holy water from around the world. If I may be bold, I actually prefer that piece aesthetically and can’t really ignore it for being so similar to Kovats’s piece to avoid mention. In some aspects, what Hiller did for holy water, Kovats is doing for oceans and what is striking about both is away from the 'labels'/ideas we surround them with they’re both essentially still, water. The water in ‘All the sea’ mostly looks the same (except for the very obvious, if alarming, yellow North Sea and subtle variations in sediment colour in others) and in being contained Kovats doesn’t seem to be trying to present the vastness or power of oceans, in a sublime sense (these are not huge gestural paintings) but the preciousness of it, it’s very sameness in relatively modest, clinical/functional plain looking bottles, more personal and more controlled.  Inadvertently though they create an awareness of the scale of oceans not by being different, but by being many. This statement of unity, for me, is representative of the water cycle as a whole, the idea being that tomorrow’s dirty dishwater is eventually someone else’s rain. They cannot be pigeon holed into having one preferred reading, like Hiller’s more pilgrimage/spiritual based piece. Kovats’s waters are not her own, they have their own stories, that largely remain anonymous.  Mischievously too, I still wonder if anyone was tempted to sneak their bath water in there somewhere claiming it was sea....  

‘Where Seas Meet, North: Baltic & Tasman: Pacific’ (2013-14) is another example where two sea waters inhabit separate vessels but also connect via a pipe at the top, in the undistinguishable similarities between the two seas it highlights or reminds us that the fabrication of boundaries, as a way of mapping/controlling oceans, is man-made idea. The mapping theme, neatly ‘flows’ into another work in the exhibition, ‘Only Blue’ (2013) which uses obsolete Atlases, laid open on four tables with their landmasses erased under white paint so all that remains is the blue of the sea. In the same way it is much easier to understand the physicality of sky based on where it meets the horizon, where it meets the land, a tree, a hill, a mountaintop, plane or bird; the same can be said of oceans/water and we can only comprehend their vastness by the relationship to the land or containers that surround them. Or at least so I speculate. ‘Only Blue’ makes one aware of the oceans more as a physical space, as to a temporal one that links landmass. It’s like when you’re learning to draw you learn to draw negative space between objects as to the positive, solid object itself.

Oddly for me, the more representational works in the exhibition are the ones which fall flat in having less to say, ‘Reef 1’ (2014) and ‘Reef 2’ (2014) are two sculptures made from barnacles covered in gesso. They are more obvious in their connection to the sea and are actually more static and heavy than the fluidity of the ink drawings and other sculptural works which have something more of a process or ‘moment in time’ to them; this can also be felt in the series of sculptures titled ‘Schist’ (2001) whereby wax is layered and compressed by lead shot into arched folds mimetic of tectonic plates. Although now hardened they retain a 'molten', soft appearance to them which bizarrely, feels more close to nature than the actual natural object of the barnacles. In a separate room a third sculptural style ‘Tilted’ (2002) is a cast rocky interior hidden inside a contrasting modern, flat architectural, plinth-like exterior. They are a little reminiscent of Mariele Neudecker's mountainscape/forms in mist-shrouded vitrines, but I'm not dwelling too much on that its just interesting if you like these works and want to find an artist who is similar.      

'Schist' (2001) Tania Kovats

 It is really rewarding to see a solo exhibition at Hestercombe that has so many different approaches to exploring its central theme. Kovats's practice is coherently diverse and I enjoyed experiencing each of her works individually in rooms but also together as a whole show. The whole thing was  'more digestible' as someone put to me, which I think was pretty apt.  

 I left having spent the evening of the private view in the greatest of company and felt enthused that more people should know and experience this exhibition,  later I also wondered if Kovats has paid our Hydrographic office a visit and vice versa...? It seems as though the two are connected.  

“Water is the element of connection.....that any action however small is connected to every other action and sends a ripple out into everywhere.”

Tania Kovats 'Oceans' is on at Hestercombe until January 11th 2015

Further reading:
*** Photo courtesy of Sara Dudman

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