“Oceanic,” Tania Kovats’s recent exhibition of major sculptural installations and works on paper, continued her fascination with the natural environment as a vehicle to generate heightened emotional states. Seas and oceans, river systems, maritime culture, flooding and tides all provide a reference point for her to comment on current sociopolitical and environmental concerns. Kovats’s work encompasses large-scale, time-based projects, sculpture, installation, and drawing to explore the intersection of landscape, nature, and culture.
Bleached (2017) and Divers (2018) formed the focal points of “Oceanic.” Bleached, a profoundly haunting work, considers the urgent issue of coral bleaching. Struck by the “landscape” of The Deep, a public aquarium in Hull, U.K., Kovats created plaster casts from salvaged coral. By slicing through her reef and placing it in vitrines, she effectively mimicked a museum display. Removing the color allowed her to exploit its form, while echoing the horrific ghost reefs proliferating around the world.
Kovats grew up at a time when Jacques Cousteau, the French underwater explorer, was frequently seen on television. She has recalled the sense of awe she felt while watching the mysteries of sea life unfold in front of her eyes. When creating Bleached, which was initially made for The Deep, she re-visited those early experiences. As environments, reefs around the world are under huge stress and may not recover, since many of the causes of bleaching, or coral death, are here to stay. By bringing what can seem a remote problem into immediate focus, Kovats’s memorials force viewers to take note of the unfolding crisis, the consequences of which are not yet fully known.
Divers, a group of cast concrete sculptures, continues to explore similar themes. Its starting point came from Kovats’s conversations with a project restorer tasked with developing coral nurseries to aid in the repair and regrowth of damaged reefs. To make Divers, Kovats poured concrete into wetsuits strung up on scaffold towers for support. She has referred to this process as “a wrestle, as the concrete was sloppy and the wetsuits so hungry they just kept swelling. But three days later, I sliced the wetsuits open and peeled the sculptures out of them.”
The resulting sculptures are visually startling and among Kovats’s most figural work. Each wetsuit has left its mark, so that seams and stitches remain visible, with the zips acting as a navel, or the figure’s “umbilical cord.” The headless and footless, inverted forms appeared to dive through the gallery floor, legs high in the air. Physically challenging and unnervingly surreal, the Divers made an astonishing ensemble. Although representative of the human female form, they are equally evocative of marine and plant life. Their drama lies in how they cross between one threshold and the next. Or, as Kovats has explained: “I’m fascinated by how we can take a breath, dive to a certain limit, then come back up to our own world.”
Bleached and Divers were beautifully displayed with drawings inspired by Rachel Carson’s 1953 book, The Sea Around Us, and a series of works made directly on maritime charts and maps. Drawing has always been a central part of Kovats’s practice, and she remains a prominent advocate for its importance as a creative and reflective medium. In “Oceanic,” her sculptural installations offered a commanding presence, while the surrounding drawings, fluid and ethereal, completed the show to generate a truly contemplative experience.