Friday, 26 October 2018

Do you see what I sea?

In her latest exhibition at Exeter Phoenix, Tania Kovats dives into the socio-political and environmental concerns of mankind’s relationship with the sea. Influenced by her ongoing exploration of water and by marine biologist Rachel Carson’s 1953 book ‘The Sea Around Us’, the exhibition focuses on themes such as coral reefs, the horizon line and maritime culture exhibited through sculptures, drawings and installed works.

Bleached (2017) mixed media
Carson’s influence is quite literally and immediately present in a series of drawn book covers forensically represented and taken from different versions of ‘The Sea Around Us’, each meticulously rendered and observed so as to capture every wrinkle and fold from their wear and tear. My own personal interests in all things book-related leads me to wonder if these books all belong to Kovats or whether they were loaned, found or borrowed from their original readers? They all look like books which have been read and travelled, where have they been, how many people had read them, had the ideas they contain affected someone’s life? Books like weathered skin show the passing of time and age, a thought that I have never really previously given much contemplation to until I thought about how drawing a book cover must be like drawing a portrait, the book design itself may be mass produced but the wear of the book is individual and something of a pleasing mystery in its uniqueness. I like the idea that the physical object of the book itself can hold a relevance as much as the ideas with which it contains.  For the purposes of this exhibition however, the temporal nature of these book covers perhaps a reminder of the ever-changing sea itself, as Carson’s book reiterates, 
The Sea Around Us (nine spines) 2018, pencil on paper

‘It is a curious situation that the sea, from which life first arose should now be threatened by the activities of one form of that life. But the sea, though changed in a sinister way, will continue to exist; the threat is rather to life itself.’ -Rachel Carson

Continuing with my book theme, in 2014 Kovats’ produced a book about drawing titled, ‘Drawing Water’ to accompany an exhibition the she had at the Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh. I never saw this exhibition but found the book and remember how it reinforced my own feelings about drawing can be a ‘way of thinking’ or a means in which to lose oneself and ponder new ideas.
'I draw to find my way out. Drawing fills the space when I'm not sure what I am doing. It's my mechanism for map-making and my search engine, even when I don't know what I am looking for.'-Tania Kovats
Therefore, one could argue what better way to understand the sea or contemplate it than to draw it? A large installed drawing titled ‘Sea Mark (Prussian Blue)’ 2018 created via a series of blue watercolour dashes or horizontal pools conjure comparisons to abstract puddles or the shapes of light hitting the surface of the sea going out towards the horizon. It is no coincidence that the medium with which to draw is connected with water and only reinforces its connection to the sea it represents (a similar piece was created in a solo show at Hestercombe in Taunton during 2014-15). Displayed across a series of sheets pinned together on a wall being both a scaling-up process and a compartmentalising of elements that make up the greater whole. It is as if Kovats is saying that the sea is too vast to contemplate or depict in its entirety so it must be broken down into a series of repeated shapes until its scale can be installed rather than preconceived. It also puts the viewer directly into the work, making us contemplate our own situ and scale in relation to 'the sea' or something much bigger than ourselves.

Sea Mark (Prussian Blue) 2018, watercolour on paper
Somewhat bias of me, I have so far only focused on the drawings of what will strike many people as a very sculptural exhibition (debatably the work ‘Sea Mark (Prussian Blue)’ is almost quite sculptural in its installation). A series of vitrines titled, ‘Bleached’ 2017 containing ‘an imagined bleached coral reef’ represent a bleak and sterile view of the impact humans have on the health of such habitats. Like a beautiful, yet fragile petrified forest and a warning told in museum-form, conveys the message that these reefs are a dying and precious ecosystem that must be protected lest they become museum relics of the future. Part of me wonders if it is all too obvious in how it is meant to be read and that this work leaves less to the imagination, but then maybe it is more important that the message is clear? In a second room adjacent to ‘Bleached’ two more sculptural works titled, ‘REEF’ 2018 are more experimental. A bit like the premise of drawing as a way of ‘figuring out’ these hand-maquette sculptures made from concrete and neoprene (ironically the same stuff used to make wetsuits) are prototypes for a ‘functional coral reef restoration structure’. They are less polished and sort-of awkward if a little clumsy looking in comparison to the vitrines but as consequence have more potential in what they could be interpreted as. Potential, that could be believed as being a 'new imagined coral reef' or for those more sceptical, like me, at the very least something that is more multi-faceted in its abstraction than its linear-ness in being representational. 

REEF (2018) concrete, neoprene
The overriding ambition that the work Kovats makes intends to, ‘reflect on our relationship with the sea, and encourage more connection and agency in how we connect to the natural world’ is quite a bold statement. I do not know if I personally feel a greater connection or understanding after seeing the exhibition than I had previously, but discovering more about Rachel Carson is certainly something I am keen to pursue, particularly how what she wrote in the 50s still feeling very relevant today. Having seen other work by Kovats previously at Hestercombe, I am excited by her methods and inventive enquiries into water, the ocean and creative processes as a means of understanding and getting audiences to engage with work. I think ‘Troubled Waters’ is just that, where it achieves is that it is intriguing and unusual enough to want to contemplate but readable enough to be able to take away a sense of meaning from it. Whilst the drawn elements are important, to me at least, in stopping the whole exhibition becoming too ‘cold’ and emotionally bleak, bringing back something of the human-hand and presence to make us connect to the work more. The waters Kovats foretells may be troubled but there is hope too, perhaps, is we do not loose a sense of humanity.
Troubled Waters – Tania Kovats is on at the Exeter Phoenix until 11th November 2018

Wednesday, 17 October 2018

Bookbinding Anatomy 101

Pass me the scalpel whilst I make an incision across the spine…through which to insert the needle…keep the bone folder on standby to ensure nice clean precision along the joints….

Bookbinding, I have come to appreciate, is a delicate operation. What better place perhaps, to learn about this skill for first time within the context of a medical library in a hospital?!

During two-hour sessions over a period of four consecutive Tuesday evenings, staff at Musgrove Park Hospital participated in making four different books under the tuition of professional bookbinder, Megan Stallworthy. The workshop, programmed by Emma Quick for Art for Life (the Trust’s art and wellbeing initiative), was part of a series of artist-led workshops for NHS staff taking place at Musgrove Park Hospital.

As a member of the Library Service team and a complete novice bookbinder it was my pleasure to help facilitate and attend these evenings! We were keen for the workshop to take place within the library as a way of promoting and encouraging the space as a place for wellbeing-based activities and thinking that learning book-binding in the context of books themselves was an appealingly romanticised place to do so. This was a context that had previously worked well in the bookshop from my prior experiences as a bookseller. By necessity the hospital site is largely a functional, sterilised or clerical-based place, so I would like to think for many staff that there is something contrastingly comforting about being in an environment surrounded by books. 

Despite my art background and years spent stacking, selling, displaying and shelving books, I confess to having never attempted making one. I know very little about the origins of how the physical part of a book is produced; like many perhaps, knowing slightly more about what is involved in writing the words and content. Fortunately for me, I was not alone! The nine of us taking part also had no prior or limited experience and Megan, the ever-patient tutor was highly organised in breaking down the steps needed to make each book so what at first felt like it could be a complicated task became manageably enjoyable.

Over the sessions we managed to make four books:  two variations of an accordion book, a single section case binding and a long stitch binding. All four involved various different techniques, each new skill demonstrated under Megan’s precision and expertise along with being equipped with the proper tools like the bone-fold, bradawl, waxed-thread, grey board, glue and papers that make a significant difference from being shown how to make something and actually producing an object that is something one will keep and is proud of. It was the opportunity to learn the meaning of terms such as ‘creep’ and which direction to cut/fold based on the grain of the paper to how to measure cover paper and spine widths, different techniques to apply glue (who knew?) and how to make a sewing template for stitching pages together. For the second time this year, I the reluctant sewer attempted to thread needles as I stitched the cartridge paper into my pre-measured casing holes. My resulting long stitch binding was rather shaky, but I had still managed to produce something that held itself together. My favourite to make though were the accordion books as these involved no stitching whatsoever and were more involved with gluing and folding techniques. With these books in particular I found myself planning what might go inside them and ideas for things I could write or draw.

I enjoyed conversations about the ‘hand of the maker’ involved in each of the individual books that we were making; how our own ‘imperfections’ of how we may have cut the paper or bound the pages together are not necessarily faults but characteristics or quirks of their handmade origins. Something of an anti-perfectionist myself, I like to celebrate those traces of hand and uniqueness that come from the handmade object that can never be recreated in the mass produced. I think there is a Japanese word, ‘wabi sabi’, which succinctly encapsulates what I am referring to here- an ‘acceptance of imperfection’.

Apart from learning a new skill, these sessions were also a chance to talk and meet new people, all of whom have different roles/responsibilities throughout the hospital from nursing to managerial and clerical. It was good to come together for a shared experience at the end of the busy working day as a group of people who were all eager to learn something new. We all had four books to show for our efforts and I for one can now say I’ve made my own book -in a library! Though I do not expect to be something of an expert when it comes to any future book repairs…

More information about Megan Stallworthy's workshops and beautiful handmade books can be found here: