One can distinguish no fewer than seven diverse yet thematically linked streams of work in Tania Kovats’ show ‘Oceanic’ (at Parafin to 20 November). We discuss three of them below, but you will also find a library installation made up of various copies of ‘The Sea Around Us’, an inspirational text for the artist; her ‘Books from the Flooded Library’, stained by water; several meditative ‘Sea Mark’ watercolours of the surface of the sea; and a sculptural installation evoking the death of coral. Kovats lives in Devon and teaches at Dundee University.
PCK: Where does your name come from?
Tania Kovats: I am half Transylvanian, but I was born in my Nan’s council house, where my parents were living at the time, in Whitehawk, Brighton.
‘Brighton Rock’ comes to mind…
Tania Kovats: I remember being shocked when I read it as a teenager, a book set in Brighton’s underbelly by a writer who does sex, guilt, and Catholicism so well.
Walking into the show, everyone will be struck by the ‘Divers’. How did you arrive at the idea of casting in concrete from wetsuits?
Tania Kovats: It was more an impulse than an idea – I trust my impulses, but post-rationalising a bit – wetsuits are the skin we wear to be in water, we wrestle in and out of wetsuits, and we are slightly different creatures when we’ve got them on. And I’ve always loved the Selkie myth of the seal woman who slips off her skin to come on shore to dance. This is like that in reverse: you slip on a skin to get into another element, the water. The sculptures are figurative but boneless, they are about the flesh not the skeleton. Their headlessness anonymises them and emphasises the euphoria of the body. I wanted to give the impression they are passing through the solidity of the architecture, joyfully moving between worlds like when you enter water.
Do you dive?
Tania Kovats: I love being in the water, but no, I’m not a diver. I get ‘vertigo’ in deep water, even though I know I can’t fall. I am fascinated by free divers – for their discipline, and the incredible breathing exercises – that enable them to do what they do, the depths they can reach on a single breath. I see parallels with how I work across drawing and meditation, practising them both in tandem, including through the ‘Drawing Breath’ workshops I run to combining these two things.
How do you make them?
Tania Kovats: I suspend wet suits in a small scaffold tower, block them at the end, and fill them up – even small wet suits can hold a huge bulk of concrete, though some can take more than others. Then I bind them, so I can then tension them against the vertical and make them bulge and fall in ways that interest me. I wait three days, then spend a day unpeeling them, which is another wrestle. I leave the zips in – I see them as the navel, that show where these bodies have come from. I like how the wet suits print details, such as seams, into the concrete. I finish them with cleans cuts at varying points to reference both classical sculpture and the cleanly cut cuff.
That admiration of freediving must feed into the title of the ‘Freediver’ works. How did they come about?
I have my yoga mat in my drawing studio – they are both daily practices. One morning I decided to combine them by making a body print. So I covered my skin in linseed oil and Payne’s Grey oil paint, and carried out a series of sun salutations, printing through repetition, more or less hitting the same places as I repeated the poses. The feet slip, as I’m covered in oil. I called them ‘Freedivers’ because they feel as if they are mobile, moving through space. ‘Freediver’ also suggests the state of mind I hope to achieve in yoga and drawing.
I suppose Yves Klein’s Anthropométrie works are one predecessor?
Yes, I recently found some fascinating interviews with Klein’s wife and models, describing how much they loved the process – they said that they never felt naked, due to the paint on them, and felt they were printing their souls rather than their bodies. That made me think again about the feminist reading of those works that I had previously signed up to, that problematise this work. The ‘Freediver’ works are me printing myself, though – I am brush and artist at the same time. It’s a very primal impulse to print with the body: you can go from handprints I’ve seen in caves in Patagonia right through to David Hammons, Agnes Dene and Helen Chadwick using a photocopier to print her body. I made ‘Freediver’ during lockdown at a time when touch was becoming associated with contamination and danger. Touch is so important, and it has a unique reciprocity: when we touch something it touches us back, and that’s not true of our other senses like looking or listening. So I wanted to visualise a positive language of touch.
The ‘Orgasm Drawings’ are another lockdown project, and again touch is evoked. Are they difficult to make?
It did take some work to establish how to make these and an entry into a particular state of mind. My right hand is bringing me orgasm, while my left hand holds a pencil and mirrors or copies the movement. It’s the most extreme manifestation I could think of where I could make a drawing about touch. The drawings I end up with are abstract expressionist scrawls that describe, I think, a vagina. And I like the bizarre idea that you could say: ‘look, there’s an orgasm!’ which is a little disruptive in a show that could seem polite. But they’re also oceanic moments: the moment of orgasm is one in which you are less separate from the world, you expand and are part of everything.
How can I tell whether, in line with general male insecurities about the female orgasm, you’ve faked them?
The question of truth and trust hangs over any artwork you see. I suppose it would be possible to make a set of ‘fake’ orgasm drawings but that doesn’t interest me. What I like more is the idea that it might be possible to trace and hold an orgasm on a piece of paper.
Top Photo: ‘The Divers’, 2019 – installation view of Oceanic at Parafin Gallery, photography by Peter Mallet