The Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh
15 March – 25 May 2014
by DARRAN ANDERSON
This creative interest in the sea has not been restricted to the ancient aquatic myths of Gilgamesh, Oisín or Tarō, but has carried on into the modern age. When Joseph Conrad turned his attention to the genocidal imperial crimes in Africa, he did so via an ivory boat venturing deep into the Congo. When Herman Melville wrote his epic on God, America, commerce and mad vengeful ambition, he set it on a whaling ship in the Atlantic. In 1842, JMW Turner claimed he had himself tied to the mast of a ship for four hours during a heavy storm, like Odysseus resisting the Sirens in Homer’s Odyssey. The result was a painting (Snow Storm – Steam-Boat off a Harbour’s Mouth), but just as importantly it was the creation of a form of legend, happening just far enough over the horizon to remain convincing.
With revolutions in transport and travel and the predominant move to urban living, it would appear the sea has lost its primacy in our imaginations. A romance, steeped in truth, fiction and more accurately the indefinable merging of the two, seems to have slipped away. Tania Kovats’ exhibition Oceans returns something of this lost allure. Equally, it demonstrates that the one personification of the sea to survive in the supposed age of reason is the Ancient Greek ocean-deity Proteus, who, significantly, is a god of change. Kovats demonstrates with a remarkably evocative lightness of touch that the seas remain a bottomless repository of transformations and interpretations. They mean whatever we bring to them and whatever we take away. They are each a canvas and a universe, and in that balance and contradiction lies the subtle but considerable poetry of Kovats’ work.
The bottles in All the Sea (2012-14) seem insignificant at first, austere even. They resemble relics from a Victorian laboratory or, with their various shapes and sizes, a perfumery. Each contains simply water. It is soon clear that simply is an inadequate term. Kovats has assembled the collection from a global cast of contributors. In 365 bottles, there is water from across the planet’s latitude and longitude. The source locations are a poetic litany in themselves: the Mer d’Iroise, the Thracian, Laptev, Timor, Ionian, Savu, Molucca, Aral and Caspian seas. At times, cultural and historical references spring to mind (Bismarck, Sargasso, Galilee, South China). At other times, the intrigue is down to the obscurity involved (Chukchi, Visayan, King Haakon VII), at least to a viewer more familiar with the seas of north-west Europe.
In the glass vessels there is nothing then but water, but Kovats invites us to examine this nothing and find in it a protean mass. There will be the microscopic ingredients and pollution unique to various parts of the world. There will be the associated mythology and folklore of each sampled place. There are also the stories behind who sent the samples, when, from where and how. When we follow the contexts, each bottle contains things which are immeasurable. And yet, they contain nothing more than seawater. Art in the eye of the beholder may be sincere and valiant, but it is also vulnerable to claims of emptiness. The inability, however, to distinguish mystery or beauty in a collection of small portions of distant seas would suggest a diminished view of the world. Any victory would be pyrrhic and any cynicism our own loss. Sometimes though the epic blankness of the sea remains precisely that – a blankness. The awe and the meaning is for us to find if not provide. Exploration is the key.
Every sea deserves a map and these bottled seas are no exception. They have an exquisite one in Kovats’ book Drawing Water – “a portolan, a chart drawn at sea to guide a sailor from one safe harbour to the next”. The interconnections of Kovats’ accompanying accounts and charts form a nexus that could be said to be symbolic of our own reactions to the sea. It seems almost impossible to consider the vast spaces of open water without being set off on mental excursions through culture and history. Kovats encourages this “mechanism for exploration” with a commendably open and inquisitive attitude towards the audience; all the more admirable coming in what is often a hermetic art. Here are the charts of others: what might yours resemble, she implicitly asks.
Kovats’ own reactions to the sea come in accompanying nautical works. These seem like ripples emanating from the central All the Sea installation (in turn derived from her earlier Rivers project). Continuing the protean theme, the works take different forms from the painted ceramic tiles of Sea Mark and her sea drawings to the photographic triptych Cape Reinga (2014) and the impressive stranded barnacle reefs (somewhere between found object and sculpture). In the scattered ink of Rain (2013) and her evaporation works, there are reminders of the easily forgotten fact that the sea transfers into the sky and returns again as precipitation, all seas being linked in this process. These are small unifying reflective moments that capture the thoughtful charm and crystalline beauty of the exhibition as a whole.
When allied to her earlier work here (the geological mechanics of Schist and Mountain (2001), for example), it becomes clear that Kovats is a cartographer, but not in the traditional sense. She charts territories certainly, but builds them too, from memory as well as physical materials. We cannot avoid viewing the sea without human reference-points seeping in, even though it essentially disregards us and our trivial concerns and existence. In Only Blue (2013), Kovats flips our land-centric view to consider another way of looking at the world. The defaced obsolete atlases reveal names and boundaries of territories that no longer politically exist. The sea has outlived countries already and will ultimately outlast them all. It evades all attempts at restriction or even definition. In Kovats’ eroding cliffs series, we are reminded further of our impermanence and the shifting ground we mistake as stable. The sea does not stop just as we do not last. All maps, however authoritative, are temporary. We may explore while we have time.