Mediating between Nature and Self

Tania Kovats is renowned for producing sculptures, large-scale installations and temporal works which explore our experience and understanding of landscape. Her work was the subject of a major solo exhibition at The Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh in 2014, encompassing sculptures and drawings which explored her preoccupation with the sea. She is Course Director, MA Drawing at UAL, Wimbledon and has recently been appointed Professor of Drawing at Bath Spa University. She is also the author of ‘Drawing Water’ (2014) and ‘The Drawing Book: A Survey of Drawing – The Primary Means of Expression’ (2017).

Tania Kovats, All the Islands of all the Seas, 2016, ink on layered matte acetate, 196 drawings, 32 parts, framed, 42 x 30 cm, 16.5 x 11.8 in (each). Courtesy the artist and Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, London.

Richard Bright: Can we begin by you saying something about your background?

Tania Kovats: I was born in Brighton, studied art in Newcastle and then in London at the RCA. I lived in London for twenty years with time living away in Rome and Los Angeles, and I currently live rurally in Devon with my partner of thirty years, the artist Alex Hartley. We have one son.

Tania Kovats, All the Islands of all the Seas, 2016, detail, ink on layered matte acetate, 196 drawings, 32 parts, framed, 42 x 30 cm, 16.5 x 11.8 in (each). Courtesy the artist and Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, London.

 RB: What is the underlying focus and vocabulary of your work?

TK: The main focus of my work is how art mediates and communicates our experience of what we call Nature. I think of Nature as a set of interconnected processes and systems rather than things or places. My work starts from subjective experiences and perceptions, it is an exploration of the Self. The space of particular landscapes help me access a sense of self. All art works are acts of communication but my first audience is that conversation with myself. I work across various platforms including sculptural works, drawings, writing, and temporary and permanent works in the public realm. Increasingly my work considers the environmental and socio-political implications of having landscape as the starting point for my work. Most recently water has been central in my work, the sea, river systems, maritime culture, flooding, tides, and the horizon line.

RB: How would you define your drawing practice?

TK: Drawing is important to me for a range of reasons. I think of my drawing practice as a space of recovery and restoration. It’s the part of my practice I can retreat into when I don’t know what else to do. If I have been caught up in writing, or working on complex public works involving fabricators and commissioners, it’s my drawing practice where I can work in a quieter, singular way. It’s a practice, like many introverted restorative practices I use, and it’s just somewhere to quietly make a mark.

Drawing is also something I use regularly to visualise things I make before they exist, it’s how to worry away at a ‘making’ problem, or communicate something I am proposing or developing.

I have written a couple of books about drawing where I have been given the chance to reflect and unpick the narratives of a wide range of drawings, not just drawings made by artists. Drawing belongs to everyone and I think of drawing as the most democratic art forms.

Drawing has also featured in my role as an educator. I have run the MA Drawing course at University of the Arts London, Wimbledon, for the last five years which means there is an extension to my drawing practice into conversations with students that are exploring and testing the expanding field and building a community of practice around drawing. I have just been appointed Professor of Drawing at Bath Spa University so that is a new role for me to continue to be an advocate for the form.

Tania Kovats, Rivers, 2012, river water, glass, rubber, boathouse. Permanent commission: Jupiter Artland, Edinburgh. Courtesy Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, London. Copyright the artist. Photo: Keith Hunter.

 RB: Water, and bodies of water, is an important element to your work. Why is this?

TK: Water is a connective element in the landscape. Some of this preoccupation came out of where I live, as I moved out of London to live in quite an isolated place beside a river in Devon – the connection the river made from one place to another seemed more vital than the other lines of connection that run from where I live to other places like the road, the phone or internet lines.  I made a collection of one hundred different river waters from around the UK and housed them in a boat house specially constructed for them in Scotland at Jupiter Artland. Travelling round the UK collecting river water gave me a different understanding of how rivers form the topography of the landscape and how water is a restless energy in the landscape. Water is a sculptor. It is constantly shaping the land either with coastal erosion, glacial action, rivers carving through land or shifting sediments, or simply frost shattering a stone. We have always needed to live near water. I want my work to speak to our liquid selves, the part of our identities that is fluid and shifting and hard to hold.

I then went on to make a big sister work to this, All the Seas. I wanted to bring the water from all the world’s seas to one place. This work was made with The Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh, and meant mobilizing a global network of seawater collectors via social media to send me seawater.

More recently I’ve been looking a particular rivers, The Thames in London and the Exe in Exeter. I’ve made two newspaper publications that look at the stories or culture of a river, and how a river is a massive force or energy that runs through our urban environments.

Tania Kovats, All the Sea, 2012-14, 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.

 RB: Your book, Drawing Water, is a fascinating and diverse collection of drawings and writings exploring drawing as both a mechanism for exploration and a tool for representation. Can you say something about this book? What prompted it and what are its aims?

TK: I can easily get lost in drawings, unravelling them, their narratives and purpose, trying to unpick what they are trying to communicate, what the drawing is trying to work out. They are fascinating forms of visual communication, direct, intimate; easier to read than so many other art forms and are made for many reasons. With this publication I selected drawings, related to the sea, made by engineers, sailors, marine biologists, explorers, archaeologists, cartographers – and artists. I am very literal in my thinking; I went in search of the drawings made by explorers to talk about how drawing is a mechanism for exploration.

Tania Kovats: Evaporation. Solo Exhibition. Installation view: Museum of Science & Industry, Manchester (2015). Courtesy the artist and Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, London.

RB: Can you say something about your work Evaporation?

TK: I was invited to make an exhibition in response to James Lovelock’s GAIA theory, which is an idea that the planet itself is the largest living thing on the planet, that it is a self-regulating system. I chose to look at GAIA theory in relation to the world’s oceans. I made three large sculptural bowls in the shape of the three biggest oceans. I had been looking at the interconnected nature of the world’s waters, making a series of drawings with blotting paper, ink and salt and using evaporation processes. I’d flood the paper and then dry it out, the salt would split the ink and crust over. Some of these were made onto hydrological charts as well.

Tania Kovats, Evaporation (Black) 21, 2014, ink, salt, water on blotting paper, 42 x 30 cm, 16.5 x 11.8 in. Courtesy the artist and Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, London.


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.


Tania Kovats, Evaporation (Blue) 24, 2014, ink, salt, water on blotting paper, 20.5 x 15 cm, 8.1 x 5.9 in / Evaporation (Blue) 25, 2014, ink, salt, water on blotting paper, 20.5 x 10.5 cm, 8.1 x 4.1 in. Courtesy the artist and Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, London.

I also make drawings of the surface of the sea. I can’t draw landscapes but I draw the surface of the sea towards the horizon. It’s a drawing I make over and over again. These are my Sea Mark drawings.

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.

 RB: How are drawing and sculpture/installation related in your work? Can you say something about how they inform one another in your working process?

TK: I think I am a maker, so I make drawings rather than draw them. Making representational images doesn’t come easily to me. The drawings I make that are of real things are of books – I draw books in a way that an archaeologist might draw a ‘find’ – painstakingly copying the surface of the book, trying to penetrate its contents or meaning. The drawing is on a one-to-one scale with the object and showing all signs of usage. Copying it. I also do a certain amount of casting in the making of a number of my sculptural works, which is another form of copying. I love the skins and surfaces of things. What the surface of things, what we can see or touch, tells us about an object, and the slippage, the ‘infrathin’ gap between the original and the copy.

I love the physicality of making things, of sculptures, the ‘thingness of things’, of working with and effecting spaces, the awkward business of putting real things or stuff into the world rather than making pictures. I get caught up in processes of making – whether it’s a drawing or an object. These are important generative parts of a process narrative that form some of the meaning of the work.

Tania Kovats, Sea Mark, 2012-14, glazed ceramic tiles on board, 10 parts, 182 x 600 cm, 71.7 x 236.2 in. Installation view: Oceans, solo exhibition, The Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh (2014). Courtesy Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, London. Copyright the artist. Photo: Ruth Clark.


Tania Kovats, Sea Mark, 2012-14, detail, glazed ceramic tiles on board, 10 parts, 182 x 600 cm, 71.7 x 236.2 in. Courtesy Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, London. Copyright the artist. Photo: Ruth Clark.

 RB: The theme of the April issue is ‘Drawing as Process. Drawing as Document’. How does this resonate with your own work?

TK: I think drawing is a process of thinking, making, and communication. You don’t always know what you are trying to communicate when you start as it’s non-verbal, felt, a movement towards and away from what you understand. As for ‘drawing as document’, that to me speaks to drawings as a witness, it’s another part of the role for drawings: to allow yourself and others to see what you have seen.

RB: As well as the obvious practice of drawing in the creative sectors, it is also an important element in the fields of science, technology, engineering, mathematics and medicine. Do you see any crossovers of drawing practice between the arts and sciences?

TK: Drawing is really valuable tool of problem solving, as such it has a role to play in many thought processes belonging to anyone. Putting up a shelf, giving directions to someone, planning surgery, designing a building – the list is endless. Drawings can be made by individuals working alone in notebooks, or collaboratively around a table, or on shared screens. They are a form of conversation and working away at a problem. They also present solutions really seductively, we understand quite complex or abstract things if we can visualise them. Bits of our brains can process diagrams really easily and quickly – and then our hearts get pulled slowly by beautiful drawings.

RB: Over the past twenty years or so, anthologies, conferences, dedicated degree drawing courses, research papers, have proliferated. They all speak of the ‘expanded field’ of drawing, expanded not only in what can be counted as drawing, but also in how we can think about drawing. Why do you think there has been such an upsurge in interest in drawing?

TK: The expanded field of drawing is an exciting dynamic fluid area of practice. Because drawing has been thought of for so long as a lesser art form, a first stage, or a by-product, not the main event, it has this status slightly to the side of things where some interesting things can take place. It can have a radicalism, or freedom, or subjectivity, or feminism, or whatever you want to test out in a slightly less prescribed space than some of the other art forms. It has a democracy too, people aren’t scared of it, and it doesn’t necessarily require specialist materials or knowledge. Its not that drawing doesn’t end up in areas of expertise, the upper end of the art market, or with intense conceptual layering – but it can also start with a simple mark.  Drawing has tentacles into so many other areas – whether its sound, or film, or photography, or writing, or dance – it’s another long list.

I am also interested in drawing’s resilience to our post-digital age – there are some amazing digital drawing tools out there – but perhaps it’s as if the non-digital drawing is somehow more necessary, to slow us down, to create a focused haptic experience, something against nothing. 

RB: What projects are you currently working on?

TK: Currently my focus is on troubled waters, a more socio-political and environmental view of what is going on in the water. I am making a work about the Mediterranean as a graveyard, which has taken me to Sicily and Lampedusa. I have recently made a sculpture of a bleached coral reef and I’m now developing a sculpture that can be part of a coral reef restoration project. I am drawing corals and looking at Henry Gosse’s drawings. There is a new sculptural work for the extension of the Bodleian Library – the Weston Library in Oxford that has just gone into fabrication where I am casting books. In the studio I am currently drawing various editions of Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us’ I am running some events at The Edinburgh International Book Festival this year that have this as their starting point. I’m also looking at a river as a border and preparing another newspaper about the Tweed that runs along the border between England and Scotland. I’m also trying to develop a way to articulate the meditative and restorative appeasement of my drawing practice in some writing and retreats. Sounds like a lot of different things but there is a liquid network of thought between them.


All images courtesy of Tania Kovats and Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, London. Copyright Tania Kovats.

Get the Full Experience
Read the rest of this article, and view all articles in full from just £10 for 3 months.

Subscribe Today

, , , ,

No comments yet.

You must be a subscriber and logged in to leave a comment. Users of a Site License are unable to comment.

Log in Now | Subscribe Today