Preview: Tania Kovats Oceans exhibition, Edinburgh

Picture: Phil Wilkinson
Picture: Phil Wilkinson
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WHEN Tania Kovats started making an exhibition about the world’s oceans, she could hardly have guessed that in the winter of 2013-14 the subject would take on a whole new urgency.

The floods came within a few miles of her East Devon home and sections of the county’s coastline were swept away by storms. Water was on everyone’s minds.

Picture: Phil Wilkinson

Picture: Phil Wilkinson

At her home in a former mill in the Blackdown Hills, Kovats is never unaware of the power of water. “Our river is normally tiny, but it can get very large very quickly. The mill is built to live with the river, but like many of the places that have been flooded, there are times when, either through neglectful management or just too much weather, they’re going through the failure of that relationship. I really feel for the people going through it. What that means in relation to water and the landscape has been very much on my mind.”

Landscape and our relationship with it informs all of Kovats’ work, but it was only in creating Oceans, her forthcoming solo show for the Fruitmarket Gallery, that she realised the central importance of water. As well as sculptures and installations inspired by coastline, and a redrawn map of the world favouring the oceans, it includes All The Sea, for which networks of art lovers – and social media followers of the exhibition sponsor Louis Vuitton – were enlisted to gather water from seas all over the world and send it to Kovats. She started with the 90 seas named in the Times Atlas Of The World, but the list has grown to more than 220 – the classification of a “sea” varies from country to country.

“These seas don’t normally sit beside each other, so for me to bring them all together in one place is a very exciting idea,” she says. “As someone who makes things, I’m interested in how landscapes are made, and how they are affected by us or marked by us. Water is a sculptural force in landscape, but it is a connecting element as well. It has a really interesting role in connecting one place to another, and the dynamic nature of the water cycle means that all waters are connected.”

A few seas are still missing from the collection, however. “It ends up mapping where your connections are – the seas off the northern coast of Russia have been difficult. It also shows up places where there are difficult circumstances. There are a lot of seas around the Philippines, but their infrastructure is still being affected by the typhoon.” Absent seas will be included in the work with an empty container. Kovats hopes the audience will feel inspired to help fill the gaps.

“People have been incredibly generous and sent me water from all over the world, and that’s really exciting. It feels right that the work is built out of generosity, that people have gifted water to the work, to me, and then the work gets gifted back to the audience. For me that’s what art is, it is communication, exchange, trust and generosity.”

While All The Sea is one of Kovats’ more ambitious works, there is no shortage of other contenders. Meadow involved the transportation of a wild flower meadow near Bath to a gallery in London via inland waterways. Then there is Tree, the immense oak painted on the ceiling of the Natural History Museum to mark the bicentenary of Charles Darwin’s birth, and a project in which she undertook to draw all the islands off the coast of Britain – all 2,000 of them. For Jupiter Artland in 2012, she made a project called Rivers in which she collected water from 100 rivers in Scotland, England and Wales and installed them in a specially designed boathouse. All The Sea is this work’s “big sister”.

Meanwhile, an interest in the meeting points of seas took her on a voyage to Skagen at the northern tip of Denmark, Kanyakumari on the southern tip of India, and Cape Reinga on the northern tip of New Zealand. Water collected at each place will be displayed in communicating vessels in another new work called Where Seas Meet.

The journey brought a few surprises. “I had made these places destinations in my mind, and I assumed I would be there more or less on my own,” Kovats says. But land’s end destinations have their own tourism industry. Skagen gets two million visitors a year, Kanyakumari is a pilgrimage site, teeming with temples and visitors. “Driving to Cape Reinga feels very remote, you can drive for hours without seeing a car. But when you get to the tip, there’s a car park full of buses. At Skagen, people were queuing up to stand in the water where the seas meet to get their photo taken. There was even a little tractor that pulled a bus along the sand dunes so people didn’t have to walk there. It gave me quite a lot to reflect on.

“These places have a very powerful sense of destination. It’s a bit like the reason people climb mountains, to go as far as you can go. But standing on top of a mountain is not a challenge that’s available to everyone. Land’s end tourism has an accessibility and an attraction.”

An imagined voyage around the oceans of the world unfolds in the book which accompanies the show, Drawing Water. Kovats collects ocean-related drawings by a range of artists from Turner to Lucy Skaer, alongside drawings by cartographers, writers, sailors and archaeologists. Kovats’ accompanying text uses the connecting qualities of water to map stories and ideas, from William Blake to doomed yachtsman Donald Crowhurst, from the selkie myth to the shipping forecast, from Salman Rushdie to Freud’s theories of the unconscious.

“Drawing is very important in my own practice,” says Kovats, who runs a drawing MA at Wimbledon College of Art. “It’s a non-verbal form of thinking. I think of drawing as a very democratic form, it doesn’t belong to artists. I think it’s for scientists and children and whalers and cartographers and writers, and I think it is less locked in a particular time period than a lot of art forms, so I’m quite comfortable with the idea of allowing one drawing to speak to another. Making this book felt like an equivalent gathering, like gathering water from all the seas.”

While her work doesn’t have an explicit environmental agenda, Kovats says that a lot of art made in relation to landscape today reflects our concerns about landscape in crisis. “It’s very hard for art to be political like that. I’m not sure art is about those things, but those things can inform art. One of the things artists do is say: ‘Notice this’.

“I have a sense that people ignore elemental forces at their own risk. Nature is not benign. My sense is that we need to pay more attention to what our relationship is with the land. As an artist I have a very small voice on the planet, but I do feel if I could get someone to notice something, that feels like a small start.” n

• Tania Kovats: Oceans is at the Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh, from 15 March until 25 May