Tania Kovats


THE GREATER AN OBJECT'S SIZE, according to Edmund Burke, the more violently it excites the retina: Thus giant objects give rise to perceptions of the sublime. His contemporary Richard Payne Knight scathingly responded that if Burke's physiological thesis were true, one's pen and writing paper, held in front of one's nose, would be more sublime than either the spire of Salisbury Cathedral or the peak of Tenerife viewed at a distance. Two and a half centuries on, in her exhibition “Schist,” Tania Kovats reworks the idea of sublime landscape, playing quietly witty, unpretentious games with scale and bringing together scientific empiricism and recognizably sublime motifs—rocky cliffs, mountain paths, dramatic geological formations—with a flattening effect that echoes the skepticism of Payne Knight's riposte. It's unheroic stuff: One can hardly imagine Kovats lashed, Turner-style, to some ship's mast in pursuit of her art. The works in “Schist” direct a just-perceptible wink toward the fact that the sublime and the ridiculous—or at least the bathetic or banal—tend to be inseparable fellow travelers.

The show's prize exhibit is Mountain (all works 2001), a reconstruction of geologist Bailey Willis's heroic Mountain Machine, a splendid late-Victorian apparatus designed to simulate the geological phenomena now understood to be the results of sedimentation and tectonic plate movement. The Mountain Machine is effectively a giant vise. Loose lead shot substitutes for the effects of gravity on layers of “rocks”—in the case of Kovats's experiments, sheets of wax, lead, or foam rubber, mixed with oil paint, sulfate, and sparkly polyflake dust and sandwiched together. These ingredients are placed in a glass-sided tank, then compressed with a screw-driven piston to form models whose cross-sections mimic the folds and fractures of geological strata. Kovats exhibits eight outcomes: indeterminate, surreptitiously attractive, discreetly twinkling slabs of gloop, in colors ranging from sooty black and duty white through deep-sea green to bright orange and blue. They resemble seriously failed attempts to bake Swiss rolls.

Previous Kovats sculptures have simulated layered slices of landscapes, as if the artist were furnishing “core samples” of the sublime for further study (for example Rocky Road, 1999, a model of a mountain road that has been excised, as if with a pastry cutter, from the hypothetical mountain it circumnavigates). Others have constructed them in three dimensions to the oversize proportions literally dictated by their printed size according to the maps' scale (as in Viewpoint, 1998, an approximately five-foot-high viewpoint symbol commissioned to overlook a man-made Northumbrian lake). Mountain presents the possibility of mass-producing slices of the sublime, albeit in miniature. Also on display here are maps, including a detailed plan of Kovats's imaginary island, Driften, prepared with cartographic assistance from the British Geological Survey. Driften is a geologist's paradise—or maybe gulag—in which every existing kind of geological formation, from pre-Cambrian shield rock to Cenozoic volcanic lava, can be found. Kovats also shows a collection of drawings of real islands in ink on tracing paper. Layered three- and four-deep in their frames, the islands collide and overlap with one another-giant landmasses that have somehow slipped anchor. All these pieces are shadowed with a fainter-than-faint comedy and a subtle skepticism: A fractionally overliteral attitude to both scientific rules and aesthetic formulas gives rise to absurdity and uncertainly. “Schist” is an unassuming but intelligent show; unlikely to make the earth move—but that may well be the point of the exercise.

Rachel Withers