Tania Kovats is an exciting artist known for works ranging from a tree inlaid into the ceiling of the Natural History Museum, books about drawing, large ‘geological’ sculptures and a collection of water samples from hundreds of locations (the latter pre-dating Amy Sharrocks’ similar Museum of Water). She is also Professor of Drawing at Bath Spa University.
While this versatility nicely evades categories, there is a consistent thread of working directly with the ‘thingness of things’ (as opposed to representations), and with ways of understanding landscape. We might more properly say ‘waterscape’, since it is the essentially watery composition of the natural world (and of our own selves), and the fluid dynamism of being, that often come to the fore.
Although consisting of just three main components, this new exhibition at the Gymnasium Gallery cleverly gives access to all of these aspects.
The River Tweed, with its ‘borderland’ complexities, has attracted significant contemporary arts attention in recent years, including projects by Kate Foster, Claire Pençak, Alec Finlay and Zoe Childerley (see recent Corridor8 review here) among others.
Kovats collected water from the Tweed’s source and its mouth, and displays it suggestively with one glass vessel inside another (all one water, but differentiated behaviours); then collected more from the Scottish and English sides of the river under the famous Union Chain Bridge, this time displaying it in a single two-compartment vessel (all one water, but territorially divided).
Nine ambiguous figures in concrete (moulded by wetsuits) pose squashily around the floor-space, seemingly choreographed by the fading games-court markings that happily remain from the building’s former use.
Two walls then carry large ink-wetted newsprint pages, which walk the viewer along the texts of a poetic fantasy inspired by the border legend of Tam Lin, and which follow the artist’s similar ‘newspaper’ projects at the Thames and the Exe.
With the transnational Tweed as subject-matter, wry musings on boundaries are inevitable. This exhibition touches on the geopolitical, but does more to evoke the boundaries between inside and out, beginning and end, male and female, solid and liquid, land and sea. There is a shape-shifting frisson in the concrete figures and the Tam Lin narrative that hints at a latent shamanistic capability to transcend any of our conventional boundaries, fluidly like water. Perhaps, then, the ultimate message is optimistic.
There are warnings too, however. Artificially dividing the inherently unitary (whether into stretches of rivers or human sub-cultures, not to mention nation States) fights against a truer interconnectedness that we understand from amniotic days and unlearn thereafter. Kovats does not characterise herself as an environmentalist; but there are elements of an environmentalism (which she describes as ‘witnessing’) in her practice, and which earned her a special commendation in the Nick Reeves Awards in 2016. We in turn have an opportunity to ‘witness’ the implications of all that is compellingly suggested here.
Head to Mouth is on until Sunday 8 September.
The Gymnasium Gallery, Berwick Barracks, The Parade, Berwick upon Tweed TD15 1DF.
Open 11am-4pm, Wednesday to Sunday. Free admission.
For more information, visit the Berwick Visual Arts website.
Dave Pritchard is an independent consultant based in Northumberland.