One Billion Objects in Space, 2014. Mixed media, view of installation at the North West Cambridge Development site, Cambridge, U.K.

Unknown Extremes: A Conversation with Tania Kovats

Tania Kovats’s work encompasses sculpture, installation, and large-scale, time-based projects that investigate the layered aspects of landscape—that which lies beneath and beyond what is perceived with the naked eye. These unknown spaces— shifting tides, weathered rock faces, wood grain, and even the uncharted territories of outer space—are mysteries to be unraveled. Interconnectivity is the key to understanding Kovats’s practice; every action, however miniscule, sends a ripple that expands beyond its center to connect to everything that surrounds it. Water, in particular, has become an integral feature of her work, as seen in Evaporation and the seminal All the Sea. Kovats is currently creating a series inspired by three rivers—the Thames and the Wandle in London and the Exe in Devon. She is also producing a work that examines coral landscapes and coral bleaching for Hull UK City of Culture 2017.

Ina Cole: Around six years ago, you moved from London to rural Devon, and you now live in a former mill house with a studio high up in the mill tower. How has this environment impacted your practice?

Tania Kovats: Living here has certainly affected how I understand landscape. As a maker, I find this place abundant and very active—even if I’m just gathering firewood, then drying and burning it. I’ve used wood in sculpture, but it’s also a crop or fuel, which is a new way of thinking about it. Before living here, I was an urban dweller who sought out remote places, which is different to living rurally. But, for me, nature isn’t actually a place—it’s a process. I think the city is also a living organism, full of interruptions and connections, much like the density of a hedgerow. It’s not useful to put the urban and the non-urban in opposition.

IC: Drawing, which underpins much of your work, encourages close observation and is therefore an important tool for understanding nature. As course director for MA Drawing at Wimbledon College of Arts in London, how do you impart the significance of drawing to your students? 

TK: Drawing is the most direct form of visual communication. It crosses boundaries easily and belongs to everyone; engineers, architects, designers, archaeologists, and scientists all draw. Other art forms seem more securely located in their time, but I can look at a drawing made 10 days or 1,000 years ago and still connect with it. I’m not claiming drawing is universal or that everyone understands it, but it is more openended. I like its intimacy, a gesture made close to the body of the person. There’s eroticism to that, which you may not find in other art forms. Drawing has changed its status considerably within fine art since the 1960s. It’s become a chosen medium for practitioners and doesn’t have to be a preliminary, which is an exciting aspect to communicate to students. 

IC: An early work, Virgin in a Condom (1992), garnered public attention when the YBAs entered British consciousness. At the time, part of the psychology of making was to generate a sense of outrage, yet your ideas quickly progressed into intensively researched and more reflective works. 

TK: For me, Virgin in a Condom was reflective. At a formative point in my career, it made me realize the sort of artist I did and didn’t want to be. The YBA phenomenon had incredible momentum and provided a steady supply of copy for the press, but I really didn’t enjoy the attention that the piece generated. I had my own reasons for making it, but it got caught up in a tornado of controversy that I had very little to do with. Virgin was part of “Pictoria Britannica,” a British Council touring show, and it created a storm when it was shown in New Zealand. The curator received death threats and the work was stolen and had to be replaced. Mass hysteria broke out, with prayer meetings in the gallery and protests outside. 

In retrospect, I understand why this happened. In New Zealand, Maori culture is hugely respected, and Maori artifacts are revered as highly prized museum objects. The somewhat disenfranchised Catholic community couldn’t understand why one of their icons, the Virgin Mary, wasn’t shown the same respect in the same museum. So, Virgin was a catalyst for these concerns and absorbed some of that tension. I was quite a young artist at the time, and my response was to withdraw and say little publicly.

IC: Was the reaction you encountered a product of the early 1990s? 

TK: Possibly. Serrano’s Piss Christ had created an equivalent storm in America. Everyone was talking about condoms, because there’d been a massive AIDS campaign. But Virgin came from the fact that I was conditioned by Catholicism when growing up. I held strong feelings of resentment toward patriarchal structures that influenced how a woman felt about her sexuality and fertility, and the work reflected on that. In the late 1980s, the condom was seen as protection and, as a Catholic, you were denied that. Virgin was also a sculptural coincidence, a simple case of “that fits over this.” Yet it felt very strange when I first put a condom over the little statue. I wasn’t sure if I’d protected or suffocated her, which was an interesting dilemma in itself. 

IC: Following Virgin in a Condom, you created a number of landscape-inspired sculptures resembling extracted sections of earth reinterpreted as craggy, standalone pieces. What did you learn from your investigative processes? 

TK: My first landscape work was Grotto. In classical mythology, grottos are gateways to another world, and Virgin Mary grottos are located in places closest to heaven. Rather than work with her, I dealt with her place. She wasn’t present, but her smell was, because I used rose oil to create a perfumed cloud around the work. It was at this point that I made my first trips into remote and challenging landscapes. Visiting the Grand Canyon and Israel to see exposed landscapes with deep layers of time written into them was incredibly powerful. How the landscape makes itself became a central sculptural question for me to play out in the studio. I talked to geologists in order to better understand geological processes and mapping; in geology, you’re mapping time as well as place, and that was an interesting visual language to explore. 

Installation view of Oceans, with (background) Mountain, 2001, steel, oak, wax, oil paint, lead shot, Teflon, glass, and polyurethane foam; and (foreground) “Schist” series, 2001, wax, at the Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh, 2014.

IC: Mountain mimics the forces of tectonic movement in the earth. 

TK: Mountain was a machine with a massive vice that, on turning a handle, squeezed layers of colored wax. It was based on an early model created by the geologist Bailey Willis. He thought the Appalachian Mountains were formed when two great plates pushed against each other, crumpled, and rose up, which he demonstrated by squeezing layers of wax and plaster in a vice. I found drawings of his machine and made my own version. But I didn’t work with plaster; I used wax cast in long slabs and compressed. The wax was squeezed when warm and the lumps were then cooled, which could take days. Sometimes liquid wax spurted out like a little volcanic eruption. I used lead shot on top of the wax in the machine to simulate the weight of gravity when the layers were being squeezed underneath. So, as I turned the handle, I formed miniature mountain ranges. The studio felt like a laboratory, but very unscientific, because I never got the same results twice. 

Tree, 2009. Wood, 7000 cm. long. Work installed at the Natural History Museum, London.

IC: Tree, a lengthwise cross section of a 200- year-old oak, was installed in the Natural History Museum in London in 2009 to celebrate the 200-year anniversary of Darwin’s birth. What process did the tree undergo to become this ghost of its former self? 

TK: The idea for Tree came when my partner and I took a trip around South America for six months, with our then-eight-year-old son. Just before leaving the U.K., I’d been asked to submit a proposal for this commission, and from a camper van in Patago – nia the idea arrived fully formed—I would take a slice through a tree and insert it into the ceiling of the museum. Just before entering the Peruvian jungle, I was told I’d got the commission, so that meant it was time to go home. 

When I got back, I worked with a great team of woodsmen. Forestry people think in long timelines, as do geologists, so tree knowledge is old knowledge that gets passed down. Tree was complex, given that I only wanted a four-millimeter slice through its roots, trunk, and branches. It was cut up and the timber numbered and tracked in a drawing. The timber was then two inches thick, and wood takes a long time to dry and season, so we had to accel – erate the drying process. The wood was then put onto panels and skimmed to the required thinness with a big bed router. Tree was a heavily documented puzzle, but we could always follow the line of the wood grain, from the root, through the trunk, and out through a branch. The commission was an incredible leap of faith for everyone involved, particularly the Natural History Museum. 

IC: Unlike much of your work, Tree is a permanent installation, designed to last the test of time. 

TK: It will outlast me. Many works I’ve made have been temporary, which has been in the spirit of the work, but it’s reassuring to make a permanent piece. We have arboreal thought processes—we identify with trees and think of families as trees. Tree also references Darwin’s notebook, in which he first visualized his theory of evo – lution. On the top page, he’d written, “I think,” but instead of continuing in words, he drew a branching form, based on coral or a tree. It’s a beautiful, spindly drawing that mapped out one of his biggest ideas. I love the way his thinking became a drawing at that point. 

IC: Shortly after Tree, the Gulbenkian Foun – dation sent you on a residency to the Gala – pagos Islands to work alongside the local scientific community. This was a fruitful period in terms of generating new work, such as Colony, a clustered piece inspired by barnacle formations. 

TK: I asked to draw barnacles because of my interest in Darwin, who’d collected and studied them for 12 years. He procrastinated before publishing On the Origin of Species, because he knew it would pose a threat to the orthodox view and therefore wanted to prove his reputation as a scientist before introducing his theory of evolution. Poor health meant that he couldn’t leave home to study barnacles—people just sent them to him from all over the world. Barnacles are hermaphrodites; between geological and animal, and part of the liminal shoreline.

Seeing the effects of an exploding population on Galapagos’s main port had a big effect on me. People from mainland Ecuador had come from the coast, jungle, mountains, and city to relocate for a better standard of life, yet the resources were limited. There was a massive imperative from the scientific community to conserve, but the pro – hibitions had created a lot of tension among the island’s residents. It was fascinating to observe this colony; it was as if the world’s problems were being acted out in miniature. 

All the Sea, 2012–14. Seawater, glass, cork, and oak (365 bottles), 600 x 278.5 x 40 cm. Detail of installation at the Museum of Science & Industry, Manchester, U.K., 2015.

IC: Water is an important feature in your work. In All the Sea, you collected seawater from across the planet, assisted by a network of contributors, which was then decanted into glass vessels and installed on shelving. Is this work a portrait of the world’s ocean, a way of capturing an unwieldy entity in order to fully understand it? 

TK: All the Sea came from an impulse to gather the world’s seawater into one place. In an earlier work, Rivers, I’d collected river water from 100 different rivers in the U.K. on a similar impulse—all the waters were separate, but within the hydrological cycle, they were one water. I now live by a small river, and the experience of watching flowing water, for me, is an image of time. We’ve talked about deep time, geological time, and tree time—watching water pass is very much of the now. 

IC: Yet it has history. Water travels, bringing with it echoes of the past and intimating the future. It’s a fusion of all time, metaphorically speaking. 

TK: I do think of it metaphorically as well, that our histories are dissolved in the waters. It performs a role as the ultimate solvent, physically and psychologically. Yet it also brings you to the now. Rivers was a little sister work to All the Sea; the stream goes to the river and the river to the sea, so the next step was all the world’s seas. In All the Sea, I had 365 bottles representing 260 separate bodies of water. It was the first time I’d made a participatory artwork. I put a social-media call out with the Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh, and the work completely relied on other people’s generosity. What began as a reflection on my relationship with the sea became a collection of sea stories associated with the water that people sent. 

At the time, I was interested in gift culture in anthropological terms. I was the custodian of the water that I’d been gifted, and I wanted to gift it back as an artwork. So, I decanted the water, choosing glass bottles that could have appeared in a Morandi painting, or in a Picasso or Cézanne. The bottles had to have simplic – ity and not look too scientific, or like food or perfume vessels. As a sculptor, I’m interested in material as well as de-material, and it was important that the work wasn’t only about the idea of water—it was the water. There were a few seas I didn’t get in the first round, and they were represented as empty bottles, but if people have access to the missing waters they’re invited to contribute each time the work’s shown. 

Tide, 2015. Bronze, wood, and rope, view of installation at Somerset House, London, 2015.

IC: On the 2015 autumn equinox, you cast a 12-kilogram bell on Porthcurno Beach in Cornwall, which was shown in the Somerset House exhibition “One and All.” What did the process involve, and why did you choose this location? 

TK: I worked with an itinerant foundry on a beautiful beach close to Land’s End, using an ancient tradition of casting. I had a wax bell and two furnaces— one melting an ingot of bronze and the other bringing the mold for the bell up to temperature. When the correct temperature was reached, I turned off the fires and poured the molten liquid into the mold. It was liquid light, bright orange, as if a bit of sun had fallen down. I’ve never stared into light like it. The cast bell took a long time to cool, so it was taken out of the mold the next morning and baptized in the sea, which is traditional. 

Tide was commissioned by the National Trust to celebrate 50 years of Project Neptune, their custodianship of coastal landscape. My approach was driven by the unique tidal edge we have in the U.K.; a bulge of water comes in off the Atlantic twice a day, splits at Land’s End, wraps itself around the U.K., then joins the waters where the River Thames discharges into the sea. That’s why I wanted to cast the bell close to Land’s End. It was shown at Somerset House in London, and at the moment of high tide on the Thames, a member of the public rang the bell. If high tide occurred outside gallery hours, the security team rang it. We have all these alarms, notifications, bells, and signals to make us react, but I wanted to mark time as tide time and point to a slower rhythm. 

I’m also artist-in-residence on the River Thames in a project sponsored by Tideway, which is building a super-sewer for the city to supersede its 19th-century system. It’s equivalent to Crossrail in terms of a building project, but not very glamorous because it’s about sewage. Yet the city is a living thing, and I’m just looking at its guts and flush, which is important for its health. 

Installation views of Evaporation at the Museum of Science & Industry, Manchester, 2015.

IC: For your exhibition “Evaporation” (2015), you crafted three large, bowl-shaped vessels that mimic the shapes of the Atlantic, Indian, and Pacific Oceans. Each bowl has its own saltwater hydro-cycle. How were these pieces made? 

TK: I’ve made a lot of drawings with salt, water, and ink using an evaporation process, and I wanted to take that language into sculptural form. I always have a little blue marble of the planet in my pocket, which references the first time we saw earth from space in the 1960s. To make the bowls, I put clay onto a globe, cut out the shape of the oceans, then scaled them up. The process involved mapping, prioritizing the bits that weren’t land and drawing them as gores—the lines of latitude that go up and down the globe. If you flatten the gores, they become long, thin, canoe-like shapes. The shapes were cut out of steel, then rolled and welded into bowls. 

The bowls were encouraged to rust by leaving them outside and pouring saltwater into them. When shown, they had salinated puddles of water at the bottom, which evaporated and formed crusts. I’ve been to a number of salt flats in South America—Bolivia and Argentina, where I saw massive dead seas—and the beaches of the Salton Sea in California and the Dead Sea in Israel are just a crust of salt. Seas come and go; it’s part of the process. 

IC: Your practice can be seen as an investigation of opposite extremes—nebulous space and the unfathomable ocean. Only five percent of the world’s ocean has been explored, and space knows no bounds. What if our five-percent knowledge increased to 20 percent? 

TK: I’d have to draw a parallel with what we understand about human consciousness, because we only understand a small amount of the human brain. Maybe this knowledge will progress together. I did a residency at the Institute of Astronomy at Cambridge University that paralleled my thinking about the seas. Space and the seas are our unknown extremes. 

IC: The work you created at Cambridge, One Billion Objects in Space, was inspired by the Institute of Astronomy’s Gaia mission, which aims to chart a three-dimensional map of the Milky Way. 

TK: Gaia is an acronym, but the scientists are happy with it, because it conveys an image of the Greek earth goddess. They’re mapping the Milky Way for the first time using a space observatory out in orbit. This will produce a map without fixed reference points, using black holes as the equivalent to how we use north. But they’re producing so much data that it won’t be understood for several generations. The people working on this are like foresters who plant trees they know won’t be harvested for 200 years. It’s a wonder – ful vote in favor of the future. 

IC: One Billion Objectswas site-specific, installed in a darkened space that made the objects glimmer in the shadows. 

TK: I used an enormous barn next to the astronomy department and worked with a grid to suggest space without end. The objects were suspended within the grid to model, or represent, what a billion objects in space might be. I didn’t collect a billion objects. I used mirrors at either end of the sculpture to reflect it back on itself an infinite amount of times, and within this infinity bounce, it was possible to generate a billion objects in space. 

IC: Do you plan to develop this work or to become further involved in projects that explore the mysteries of our unknown landscapes? 

TK: I had hoped to melt down the objects I used in One Billion Objects to make a meteorite, but there were too many different metals—it would have exploded. My subject is landscape, but that’s misleading—it’s a way of exploring self without being there. The self is as big as any of the landscapes we’ve talked about. In particular, working with water represents our liquid selves, our unknowable selves. Art is a container that we pour ourselves into, and exchanges are possible when that art reaches someone else. That exchange is the motivation. 

Ina Cole is a Contributing Editor for Sculpture based in England.

Watch these videos on Tania Kovats

Tania Kovats EVAPORATION HD from Cape Farewell on Vimeo.
Tania Kovats : Oceans from arts-news on Vimeo.