Close Encounters of the Art Kind: The White Cliffs of Dover, by Tania Kovats
In 2002 Colin Painter recruited a variety of six contemporary sculptors and, through Brecknock Primary School, London NW1, a variety of six households – staff (teaching and non-teaching), parents and grandparents.
For six months, work by each sculptor was rotated round these homes. The householders lived with each for a month, siting them as they wished in relation to their own possessions. In the interests of spontaneity they were not told the artists’ names nor the titles of the works. The artists had no knowledge of the homes involved.
Below are the commentaries on one of these sculptures, The White Cliffs of Dover by Tania Kovats.
'The White Cliffs of Dover are often used to represent Britain. They’re deeply inscribed with issues of national identity and history. It’s an emotional landscape. Leaving this country by boat they’re the last thing you see; returning, they’re the first. It’s a border crossing, an immigration point, a very real boundary.
'The cliffs are tied up with moments in history to do with the war embodied in the Vera Lynn song. I am interested in how that kind of sentimentality can permeate into the chalk itself. I wasn’t party to that moment but it’s part of our collective consciousness. For me this is a landscape of longing, romance and something lost. Sentimentality is a denigrated emotion. I’m also aware that it can be a nationalistic emotion and can have a very dark face. It’s complicated territory. It is cut to suggest a section. It could be continuous. In a way this is a reference to the way memories and ideas can go on.
'Ideally it hangs at eye level as an horizon. It’s not a piece of topographical modelling. It’s more of a generic image. It places the viewer somewhere else – somewhere out there in the Channel. Playing with scale creates a certain possibility to enter a world. It turns you into something bigger. It becomes an imaginative realm: a world of reverie. It has an interesting shadow underneath. When I first put it on the wall I felt I hadn’t made the work but the shadow which follows the contour of the cliff edge. Any edge is sculpturally an interesting place – where one thing hits another.'
Beeban, Spencer, Noah & Blaze
Beeban (film director): ' When I first saw it I laughed. I really enjoyed the idea of having the edge of the world in my kitchen. It’s enchanting to have the infinity of it in your kitchen. It’s like having an extra window.It’s lovely (and I use that word consciously) to have a piece of nature in your urban home, to have a literal slice out of the earth, like a slice from a cake. Because it’s in the kitchen a lot of people have seen it – kids, mothers, baby-sitters – this floor is the life of the house. Everybody loves it. They’ve all smiled at it. It’s very accessible.'
Spencer (property developer): 'I’ve always collected crystals and I have the same sort of feeling about this that I have about them as representative of the natural world. A sense of wonder and majesty… To my mind accessibility is a very important prerequisite of something being art – an accessibility that triggers something in you. So much contemporary art seems to me to be like the emperor’s new clothes. I respect the thought and care that this artist has taken to take you to that place, the cliffs. There is skill and sweat in that.'
Beeban: 'I don’t think the definition of art is in the physical work that’s put into it. It’s in the artist’s intent; the conversation. What’s important is what happens in the gap between you and it.'
Gareth, Olwen & Rhiannon
Olwen (local government officer): At first it seemed very intrusive, taking up a substantial part of the room.
Rhiannon (12): It was a bit scary. We’re not used to having big sculptures on the walls.
Gareth (school site officer): Like everyone else who’s seen it I thought straight away, ‘the white cliffs of Dover’, although I’ve never seen the actual cliffs. My mother-in-law thought of the Battle of Britain. Dog fights over the cliffs. When I was small I used to think myself into pictures. I used to wander along roads wondering where I was going. It’s the same with this. I find myself walking across the green on top of the cliffs.
Rhiannon: Me and my Mum went to Deal and we stood on the pier. I can remember looking at these white cliffs. My Mum said to me, ‘Those are the white cliffs of Dover’... I can imagine us doing it again.
Olwen: People expect modern sculpture to be abstract and to question you – make you really try and investigate what the sculptor’s trying to get at. But, straight off, this seems to be a simple interpretation. The white cliffs of Dover mark the British Isles. They stand for a lot to people. It’s a symbol that you’ve reached home. There’s something very comforting about it. It has connotations of home-coming. When I walk into the house after a day’s work... I’m always glad to see it... a welcoming home. It’s a nice rounded green sward and the jagged white cliffs make an interesting contrast. The smooth undulations are very soothing. When the light’s on, the shadow it makes is like bats hanging down underneath – like a cave or something. But I think it’s best in normal daylight. It seems that the artist has tried to make it very true to life – almost geographically exact. Perhaps because of the height that it’s hung it’s as if I’m in a boat on the sea looking up at the white cliff face that throws itself in your sight.
Gareth: When I look at it I’m on the very top looking down over everything. It reminds me of when I used to climb cliffs back home in South Wales as a boy. It was pretty dangerous. They were two or three hundred feet high. My father used to warn me, ‘Don’t you ever climb those cliffs.’ I remember somebody falling – the brother of a boy who was in the same class as me. A rock fell out of the cliff face and he fell back and was squashed by it. I was six then. I remember wondering what happened to the rock. They had taken it out to sea and dumped it. The stained glass window in the church – you see the model of the church there – was dedicated to him. ‘All things bright and beautiful’ were the words on it as I remember. I was a choir boy there.
Lynn, Dot, Michelle, Stephanie & Jordan
Lynn (trainee solicitor): It makes me think of my dad. It’s a nice feeling. When I was a child we used to go on holiday as a family. My dad was a bit of an adventurer. We went to Wookey Hole and my dad said, 'I’m going to climb that cliff.' He did too. I remember thinking, 'My dad’s not frightened of anything'. I was surprised that the kids recognised it as the White Cliffs of Dover. You know you’re home when you see the white cliffs. Wherever you go, if you’re from this country, you think of this as home. When you’re leaving, you don’t think about it so much because you’re thinking of your holiday. It’s when you come home that the cliffs are so important. I always associate the cliffs with seagulls – white like the cliffs.
Dot (self-employed business woman): When we see the gulls my second husband, John, gives the kids a little story and says, 'They’re all the dead sailors flying around'. He was in the navy and he puts more into the story than I can. I was born in 1943 and don’t really remember the war but my parents used to speak about the White Cliffs of Dover. I remember Vera Lynn sang a song about them.'
Maggie & Sylvester
Sylvester (retired architect: 'This looks like something from the store cupboard of the geography class. The cliff shows the underlying chalk laid down in horizontal creamy layers and then seemingly turned sideways into sharp vertical bastions. The cliff has broken like Parmesan cheese or the inside of a coconut – both milky at one stage. But the cliffs are not inviting. I don’t think you could climb them. The cliffs of Albion suit a productive land – and a fortress. I am happy about the way this sculpture takes something out of its context and makes you look at it and think about it. For me it acts as an environmental prod. "Look what you’ve got – what are you doing about it?" "Oh well – it is perfectly safe. No one would harm the White Cliffs of Dover". "Oh yes – and what about when the sea rises and when the world populations really start to move. What will happen to the downs and the cliffs then – and what should be happening now to get ready?" I would like to keep this one.'
Maggie (retired teacher): 'What a brave effort and what feelings they can evoke. Coming home with the kids having driven across Europe and hanging on to the rails on the cross channel steamer – sometimes peering through the mist to see white emerge – and on one special occasion seeing the white glistening in the sun just after leaving France. Then there was the Dunkirk saga with the poor sods desperately trying to get over the water to the white cliffs before being strafed or drowned. The cliffs are a symbol of a little island which has had a major effect on so much of the world.
In a lighter vein my granddaughter had fun adding irrelevant but pretty decorations!'
Mari & Michael
Mari (trainee teacher): 'It makes me sing the Vera Lynn song about the White Cliffs of Dover. It is very "Second World War"- "the boys will be home soon" – very optimistic. In a predominantly Welsh household it’s very English – a foreign body.'
Michael (trade union officer): 'It looks good but, as a Yorkshireman, I don’t like the fact that I think it represents the White Cliffs of Dover. I’d prefer it to be Robin Hood’s Bay on the coast of North Yorkshire. I don’t like the myth of the White Cliffs of Dover. All those dreadful black and white films – the immediate post-war optimism. All of them finished with people looking into a new sunrise or planes flying back from victory over the cliffs – "THE END". Home and freedom and all that nonsense… People say when they reach the white cliffs they’re back in England. I just think I’m 250 miles from home.'
Mari: 'It’s between being a realistic depiction and a model. The stuff on the top is like you get with toy soldiers – models of battlefields. My Dad described it as a model rather than as a sculpture.'
Michael: 'It’s like the model you did at school for your Second World War project.'
Mari: 'But at times I think of it as part of a total picture. You can imagine all the things around it – the sea, the sky, the continuing cliffs. It’s better than a two-dimensional picture. It makes more impact.'
Mari: 'I imagine myself strolling on the grass above the cliff looking out across the channel. Over the sofa it creates a sort of roof and I like the way it makes the sofa seem more cosy – like a den. It looks as though it’s come out of the wall. Sitting under cliffs seems quite daunting – dangerous – and yet the sculpture creates a safe canopy.'
Michael: 'It’s in the same sort of style as the old moose’s head coming out of the wall. I don’t feel that comfortable sitting under a cliff. Cliffs are quite brutal bits of geography.'
'I’ve been very at home with the white cliffs of Dover here. When I walk into the room there’s something quite festive about it – something joyful and celebratory. It’s an optimistic piece. I like its honesty; its unfussiness. It’s nice to have a bit of landscape in your sitting room.
'I suppose it’s a familiar sight to many people whether they’re going away from the cliffs or going towards them. What it says to me is, ‘Am I arriving or am I leaving?’ That could be whether you’re coming into the room or leaving the room. I suppose the cliffs of Dover are most memorable when you’re returning. Perhaps people don’t take so much notice of them when they leave – unless they’re leaving for rather sad reasons.
'It’s a very memorable sight. I don’t think of it as particularly beautiful. It’s just significant. The edge of this land… I wonder whether it’s a fantasy or whether the artist studied the shape of the cliffs to make it accurate. I feel it’s an ideal. I find its scale interesting. I have tried to imagine what my room would look like from the sculpted cliffs if I was scaled down to the sculpture’s size. In real life the cliffs are so massive. I have an urge to put something on it to try to settle in my mind the scale of it – to try to relate it to the scale of a human being. But a figure would have to be so small that you wouldn’t be able to see it.
'It’s like a stage set waiting for something to happen. That is provocative and imaginative. You can put any idea you like on it.'
Written to accompany the exhibition Close Encounters of the Art Kind.