15th March- 25 May 2014
The Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh
Notwithstanding a title that wouldn’t look out of place on the cover of a flaccid pop album, and subject matter so well- trodden that it’s getting muddy, Oceans demonstrates that British artist Tania Kovats’ seeming avoidance of the YBA enclosure during the early stages of her career has given way to a lesser-known yet formidable body of work. is multimedia exhibition is a tour of what can only be described as the continuum of concentric scales in Kovats’ fascination with the sea; from her use of salt, sea water and even barnacles as media, to large-scale photographic seascapes and – zooming even further out – cartographical works concerned with entire continents and their respective oceanic relationships.
“I draw to find my way out,” wrote Kovats in her book Drawing Water. “Drawing fills the space when I’m not sure what I’m doing. It’s my mechanism for map-making and my search engine, even when I don’t know what I’m looking for.” Far from the well-trodden or flaccid, exploration remains the dominant theme in this show, which opens with All The Sea (2012-14). Shelves of assorted bottles containing samples of 365 different bodies of water, all having been collected by individuals who responded to a public invitation to collate samples of all the world’s sea water. Contributors were individually credited on an accompanying index, including the artist herself, representatives of various notable galleries and even Hugh Fearnley-Whittingtsall. As one might expect, it took a few orbits of the installation to draw out all of its themes, but these were to gently and rather beautifully equip me to connect with the rest of the show. All The Sea denotes a method of cataloguing that supersedes the cold pragmatism of science. It denotes a love for both the subject as well as the variety of human maritime experiences, playing off our capacity to contain and categorise the natural world with the contrastingly blatant, and fascinating, inability to do so exhaustively.
Where Sea Meet (North: Baltic, Tasman: Pacific and Bengal: Indian: Arabian) (2013-14) takes a similar approach but on a closer level. Seemingly bespoke glass vessels connect pairs of water samples from oceans thousands of miles apart with tubes, poised for mixing but which never do so. It’s evocative of the tension found in such work as Henry Moore’s Three Points (1939-40). Only Blue (2013) is a composite rendering of each continent with painted vintage atlases evoking the image of Kovats carefully, literally, exploring each continent with her paintbrush. It encourages a greater respect for the show’s more overtly geologically- themed works like Basalt (2004), Tilted (2002), Peninsula (1997) and the impressive Mountain (2001): a functioning machine used to demonstrate the effects of tectonic movement using lead shot, wax and a man-powered screw mechanism.
The show is presided over by its earliest work: Fatima (1993), a transparent polyurethane resin cast of the Madonna. It is barely there to behold with the naked eye, yet the detail of the cast is exquisite. Despite its anomalousness Fatima is an intelligent microcosm of the show’s dynamic: mysterious, perhaps spiritual, certainly beautiful and above all a shy invitation to look much closer and contemplate harder. For the uninitiated, it’s worth getting to know Tania Kovats’ output, not to mention reading her literature (as well as the recent Drawing Water, she wrote 2007’s The Drawing Book).