Thoughts on Thread:
Thread is certainly a thought, and more than a thought.
essay written by Nigel St. Clair Morgan
My practice cannot be defined by a sole discipline. This statement is not only that of artist Cos Ahmet but comes close to what the recent winner of the Hepworth Prize for Sculpture Helen Marten suggests about her work. It’s a combination of collage, printmaking and textiles, and by what he’s showing at this years Knitting and Stitching Shows it is pretty much all 3-dimensional. He may be a member of the British Tapestry Group and recipient of the Theo Moorman Trust Award, but his work is (to quote another tapestry artist in a different place Jilly Edwards) decidedly not ‘woolly pictures on the wall’.
I spent a good half an hour engaging with his work at the Dublin end of the K&S Show. It was a half hour of sketching his intriguing textile sculptures, half an hour deciphering a collection of work that is like nothing I had encountered before. Making a sketch, however rough, is, for me, the best way to engage with looking.
I began with what is clearly the major and central piece of his show ‘In the Hands of my Creator’. It is a piece that has at its centre a transparent box. Inside the box is a mass of cords of felted wool. They are intestinal in complexity and in effect, a reference to intimate bodily forms that is a pervasive feature of so much of Ahmet’s work. The cotton wrapping of these cords extends from the cord ends to a pair of hands on top of the transparent box. These are plaster casts of the artist’s hands. The hands grasp the cotton and linen filament and hold it firm so it can be extended to a whole family of identical hands waiting either side and at the base of the box. These hands are upright. The fingers are clenched, but the thumb held up vertically, and around which the filament is wound.
We are in Dublin, the birthplace and home of satirist and political poet Jonathan Swift. I am instantly reminded of my childhood book of Gulliver’s Travels and an illustration where Gulliver is pinioned to the ground by a mass of ropes attached to stakes, the men of Liliput surrounding his gigantic figure. I think of Swift’s saying ‘fingers were made before forks, hands before knives’. Yes, there is something powerful going on here. This monumental piece of textile sculpture is unforgettable even if you can’t immediately ‘get it’. I’m supplying an interpretation of sorts, but I know this is a vague idea and there is more to it.
There are other pieces, equally intriguing, and not on the walls. One, used as the signature image on his website (see above), has a plaster mask of the artist’s face. It is lying face up, but we can see filling the mask is a mass of tissue-like cords of woven threads. These provide a moment of colour in what is predominantly a work in ecru tones. These brain-like tissues of thread are deeply coloured through the artist’s own dyeing processes. They form a strong link to one of my favourite pieces in the show, a small piece the size of a human brain that you realise is what might be imagined if the mask of flesh was removed from the face. When I sketch these days I often add to my sketch a poem (of sorts) written in situ, site-specific if you like. This is how I described this amazing piece.
Against the backdrop of the almost neutral colour of the majority of his work, this piece by Cos Ahmet shows a quality of invention and use of colour that had me transfixed. It was engrossing to follow the strands and tendrils of coloured and wrapped wool that come together to make this face behind the mask. This was ‘on the wall’ but 2-dimensional, almost 3-dimensional.
One small piece was similarly displayed but it was 3-dimensional as it was fixed ‘off the wall’ to allow the viewer an intimation of what lay behind. Even whilst sketching it was a little while before I realised it was a face, the mask, again, but in profile. The right-hand end one can see the mask in profile protrude, but we see in front of us the cavity of the skull that holds the brain. This imagined brain is a complex of neutral-coloured tissue of woollen wrapped cord and intricate filaments crisscrossing the space. If there was one work I could imagine taking home and living with, it would be this.
This is an artist, whatever discipline you may put him amongst, to watch for, then wonder. I could only make one connection to other work I know and that was to the later (and monumental) work of Sheila Hicks (seen last year at the Hayward Gallery). For me this was, the most exciting and exacting work at the Knitting and Stitching Show 2016. It did not reveal itself immediately, and I’m glad I made time and space to focus on it properly – with a sketchbook. Looking at this work now, in sketch (and viewing a vivid collection of his website images), I feel I have experienced something powerful that has yet to reveal itself fully.
As I started by mentioning Helen Marten ( tipped for this year’s Turner Prize) let me quote a review of her work by Charlotte Higgins. If you submit yourself to this art – approaching the sculptures like free verse whose meaning you might rather absorb than decode – you realise you are in a place unlike any you’ve entered before, where a distinctive mind has messed with the world of objects and meaning, creating her own strange, compressed archaeology, which you are invited to expand into imaginary life.
I think that is also very true of the beguiling work of Cos Ahmet where thread is certainly a thought, and more than a thought.
Read Nigel St. Clair Morgan's exhibition review online here