I’m delighted to share with you an exploration of this and other questions with the artist Tania Kovats. I met Tania over 20 years ago when we were both on the same artist residency programme in Rome. Although our paths have only crossed once, and briefly at that, since then, I have watched her career unfold over the intervening years with growing admiration.
In recent years I have noticed that our creative interests have converged towards a deep consideration of water and an understanding of drawing as a contemplative practice, so I have been following her work with even more interest. So I’m really pleased to have had the email conversation with Tania that I’m sharing with you here.
Courtesy Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, London. Copyright the artist.
SC: Tania, your work has consistently explored a set of questions around ‘nature’ as a set of interconnected processes that we are all included within, and land as always in the process of being made and unmade by the action of water. Thinking about land/place in terms of movement and fluidity seems to be a way to undercut ideas of a fixed ‘home’ territory that must be defended. What do you think this watery shift does to our relationship with place, and with each other?
TK: This is a complex question. Living on an island means we see our edges changing, crumbling, accumulating, just not staying as they are. I have a fundamental understanding that everything is in flux, nothing is fixed, and that is the only thing we can be sure about. Thinking about sediment is useful to literalise this thought and that water is the solvent element that dissolves and carries everything around, allow things to settle until they move again.
The way I see the landscape/nature/the non-human/beyond human is as a set of processes, interconnected systems that affect and depend on each other. Not things and places. This is a way of thinking that makes sense of things for me both externally and internally – we have liquid selves.
The idea of ‘home’ remains elusive for me too, I have a ‘home’ in my work, the things I have made, am making, and will make, these are useful landmarks for me, but they aren’t in reach around me. You have to detach yourself even from these things, but know they are there, and they are part of you.
Some of the central relationships in my life are a ‘home’ space for me. I do have an actual home that I love very much but know I am only a visitor to it, I am who lives there just now. I think I must have something nomadic or oddly unattached in me. I can go to sleep anywhere.
I know lots of people can talk about who they are at their core, the ‘real’ them, I just not sure I have that narrative, it’s a multiple rather than a singular thing for me. I remember finding it a relief to realise lots of living things don’t make nests, like a jelly fish. I am aware how I symbolically arrest this flow or liquid character every time I bottle water – contain a thing that is usually in flux like time, and make it still.
Art is a very good container, it holds things well.
Tania Kovats, All the Sea, 2012-14, (detail) seawater, glass, cork, oak (365 bottles), 600 x 278.5 x 40 cm, 236.2 x 109.6 x 15.7 in. Installation view: Oceans, solo exhibition, The Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh (2014). Courtesy Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, London. Copyright the artist. Photo: Ruth Clark.
SC: For ‘All the Seas’, an installation for the Fruitmarket gallery, you presented water from all the world’s seas gathered and stilled in a series of glass vessels. This involved mobilizing a global network of water collectors to gather the samples and send them to you. So you’re expanding from work that explored a personal relationship with the sea/water to take a more collaborative and participatory approach. Is this strategy one you’re interested in taking further? How does this sit alongside more solitary creative practice?
TK: I often find myself having to balance the needs of a solitary introverted practice and the exchange and energy of an extroverted practice. The things I do on my own, and the things that are only possible with other people. It’s the difference between the in breath and out breath, I need both!
When I work with other people, I can achieve things on such different scales, with so much more reach and connection. Sometimes I think about the larger participatory projects as invitations to other quiet selves, to bring them together somehow.
I just launched COTIDAL which is quite like All the Seas, but this time asking people to answer the question ‘What do you see when you see the sea?’ I’m attempting to make a film that is 24 hours and 50 minutes long, the length of a lunar day made up from lots of contributions from other people.
So, I am asking people to send me clips of film, no more than 2 minutes, filmed on their phone, shot horizontally, and uploaded here:
Tania Kovats, Sea Mark (Prussian Blue IV), 2017, watercolour on paper, framed, 100 x 150 cm, 39.4 x 59.1 in. Courtesy the artist and Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, London
SC: You describe yourself as a ‘maker’ and that you ‘make’ drawings as a central part of your practice. And I know you also have a yoga practice. Can you say a little about the place of drawing in your creative life? Do you think of it as another kind of ‘practice’? What does the word ‘practice’ evoke for you? What does a daily drawing practice bring you, aside from the material outcomes that result from it?
TK: I like the word and activity of ‘making’ – like with COTIDAL, I am very new to working with film but if I think about it as a making challenge, I feel more courageous.
As for the word practice, everything is a practice, and I like the word as I am always hoping to get better. Yoga, walking, making bread, digging, growing things, meditation, swimming, dancing, and drawing. I think they all connect somehow and they are all part of my solitude, I tend to do all of them on my own. I try to have a non-judgemental approach to all of them, but not judging is another struggle or discipline in itself. Being non-judgemental doesn’t mean I don’t try to do what I do better, but trying to see every step as useful, even the failures, is all part of it and the evolution of work.
Drawing is home, where I come back to, where I start anything, dream, worry at, or resolve something.
Tania Kovats, Books from the Flooded Library, 2020. Plaster, ink. Courtesy the artist and Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, London.
SC: Lastly, are there particular books/films/art have been formative to your thinking about these watery questions that you’d recommend?
TK: Rachel Carson ‘The Sea Around Us’ is possibly the book that matters most to me, to draw it, as well as read it. I’ve just started drawing editions of the book in other languages and am enjoying the familiar being unfamiliar.
I am also invested in a book as an object. I’ve recently made a set of works: ‘Books from The Flooded Library’ casting books and then dipping those in ink, as if they have been in dark flood waters. The works express an environmental anxiety with my fears that everything we have learnt or written down will be washed away by our collective climate crisis. They celebrate the physical landscape of the book itself, folds, gutters, beautiful rises and wave forms. The haptic pleasure of holding and opening a book.
They are actually cast from my son’s fairly random ‘library’. He has left home now so I have been casting the left behind books, books that still sit in the intimate space of reading and living we used to share. So the other ‘flooding’ of this library is to do with the emotional outpouring in me that accompanied his departure into his completely appropriate separation into adulthood.
I love to get lost in the landscape of a book, it’s how to travel even when you can’t. I find it an intimate exchange, to escape into a world as a reader, to wander around inside somewhere that someone else has laid out for you.
Books are where I go in search of ways to make sense of things. Beside me today as I type this, are a few of books I am looking at or reading right now – one fictional one ‘News of the Dead’ by James Roberstson – he writes about landscape so well. The rest would be classed as non fiction I think: ‘The Wave in the Mind’ Ursula Le Guin; ‘Braiding Sweetgrass’ by Robin Wall Kimmerer; ‘Incredible Edible’ by the quiet environmental warriors Pam Warhurst and Anne Sikking; Nabokov’s ‘Insomniac’s Dreams’; ‘The Mind in the Cave’ by David Williams; ‘Do Earth’ by Tamsin Omond; and a book of poems ‘Plastiglomerate’ by Tim Cresswell.
Tania Kovats, Evaporation (Blue) 23, 2014, ink, salt, water on blotting paper, 21 x 17 cm, 8.3 x 6.7 in. Courtesy the artist and Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, London.
I love music, it’s an oceanic experience for me. I can’t articulate fully partly because of how much it affects me. Right now, I can’t get enough of Kelly Lee Owens, Anna Meridith, Bonobo, Sofia Kourtesis. The last gig I went to was in November – Fred Again – he is a complete heart opener for me, joy and with more joy, absolutely love what he does and how he does it. Again it will be differnt next week – Nick Cave, Patti Smith, PJHarvy often on the list. I’m happy to let music hold me together.
The other constant source or point of reference for me is where I am. I live in a rural place so it I try to just be open to the experience of that. That won’t change next week. Or the week after.