Tania Kovats at 5 Howick Place

Kovats has recently been short-listed for the 2015 Max Mara Art Prize for Women. She first came to prominence as winner of the Barclays Young Artist Award at the Serpentine in 1991. She is renowned for producing sculpture, large scale installations and temporal work which explore our experience and understanding of landscape and the natural world. Her work was recently the subject of a major solo exhibition at The Fruitmarket Gallery, Edinburgh, and she has exhibited at BALTIC Gateshead, the Hayward Gallery, Tate Liverpool and the V&A. Her work is held in numerous public and private collections including the Arts Council and British Council. Kovats’ work is anchored by an innate sensitivity to nature which underpins her absorbing practice.

What was the inspiration behind Colony (2012)?

Colony is a work that emerged after a residency in the Galapagos Islands. Over a period of several years the Gulbenkian Foundation sent eight artists out to the Galapagos to spend some time with the scientific community there and also travel around the islands. I have made several works responding to Charles Darwin, including Tree (2009) for the Natural History Museum, London and Worm (2009) for BALTIC in Gateshead. For Tree, I took a two hundred year old oak tree and made a 4mm slice down through the tree, branches, trunk and root. This slice through the tree was then inserted into the ceiling of the Natural History Museum to celebrate Darwin’s bicentenary. Worm was a large glass fronted wormery I made for a show called A Duck for Mr Darwin at BALTIC. The barnacle works, like Colony – and Reef (2014) which is currently on show at the Venice Biennale – started from my being interested in Darwin’s obsession with barnacles. Before he published his radical On the Origin of the Species, he spent twelve years working on the first full taxonomy of barnacles. Darwin understood he needed to firmly establish his scientific reputation in order that his theory of evolution would be taken more seriously when he eventually published. It was also a great act of procrastination, because he also understood the rupture in orthodox thinking that publishing his evolutionary theories would generate. 

I wanted to go to the Galapagos to draw barnacles. The Galapagos are like a living demonstration, or proof, of Darwin’s theories and are a fascinating place to visit. I was very privileged to spend time there, but left feeling that the islands should be made a protected wilderness zone where visitors are not encouraged.  Like most of the artists who visited as part of this residency, in addition to all the bizarre flora and fauna, it was the human laboratory that became increasingly fascinating to me. The scientific community live in a state of tension, with the growing population of the Galapagos that is swelling with people from mainland Ecuador in search of a higher quality of life.  It’s a very young population, sustained by tourist dollars, and the town already has overcrowded shanty or slum areas on its peripheries. There are limited resources on the islands – very little fresh water for example, and many restrictions regarding fishing or movement. These restrictions are often ignored and extremely complicated for the scientific community to negotiate and enforce.  It was like seeing the world’s problems in microcosm. Colony came out of that. 

Barnacles grow in clusters, hermaphrodites, between rock and animal, water and land, in-between things, clinging on to whatever structure they grow on. Colony is made from barnacles that I obtained from a sustainable source. They are skeletal or ghost forms, the shells left behind, like empty structures or ruins – I want them to be a bleached white to emphasise this.  The work reflects on the amazingly sculptural form of these shells, and also how they represent some of our own complex questions.

Can you explain the construction behind Schists (2001) and the underlying paradox it points to ?

The wax Schists are from a series of works produced by Mountain (2001), which is a large steel and wood machine that I made to make the Schists. In one way these wax sculptures are also miniature models of mountains. This machine was based on one made by an early American geologist, Baily Willis. Scientific theories used to have to be performed to an invited audience to build support for them. Willis wanted to demonstrate how the plates of the earth moved and collided into each other and this was how mountain ranges would be pushed up and formed.  As a sculptor, I have always been interested in how things are made and this question was then something I applied to landscape, making me look into geological thinking to see how landscape features are made. The wax sculptures were made by casting slabs of layered wax, adding oil paint, crushing up rock samples and adding to the wax, plus glitter and mica. The slabs were then analogous to layers of strata or rock and these were then compressed by the wooden ram built into the machine, crumpling and folding the layers into the sculptural forms which then end up like glazed liquorice sweets or folded flesh. They allude to the liquid state of rock. The substance we most often think of as solid and timeless is just a slower moving thing; its stability is an illusion as even stone is in a slow state of flux just like everything else. 

What is the significance of the plinth in Tilted (2002)?

Tilted is one of a series of sculptural works where I framed sculptural representations of landscape into a white formalist plinth. Rather than put a sculpture on the plinth, I set the work into the plinth allowing the rock face to erode and question the solidity of the modernist form. The plinth is also put through the same sort of turbulence that the landscape is subjected to – the plinth has been tilted and doesn’t sit on the floor in a regular way. These plinth works included Canyon (1996) where a canyon snaked into the back of the plinth, and Cliff (1997) is a work where a cliff face included a cave through the plinth, and in Gorge the river gorge split the plinth in two. These were a series of works that I made where through exploring these sculptural processes, I was trying to work out how art and culture mediate our experience and relationship with landscape. They were never based on particular landscapes or places, even though people often told me where a particular sculpture was taken from as they brought their own memories of particular places to the work. 

Main image: Tania Kovats, Tilted, 2002, acrylic compound, polyflake, mica, pigment, graphite, wood and MDF 104×128×100cm., courtesy of Pippy Houldsworth Gallery and the artist (photo: Matthew Booth)

Tania Kovats at 5 Howick Place, London SW1 closes on 3rd November 2015

Aurora Corio