A Tender Concern for Past & Present: Cos Ahmet at Forty Hall
Essay by Independent Curator Liz Cooper
for the publication 'Point of Juncture'
It was early morning, the dew still lying on the grass as I pushed through the iron kissing gate into the Hall’s extensive grounds. Walking under mature trees and through a formal walled garden, I emerged into a courtyard which to my surprise was occupied by a dozen pensioners solemnly learning tai chi. Leaving them to their stretches I circled the house, glimpsing through a window Clare Twomey’s seried bowls in a panelled room. From the elegant Jacobean front I saw a lake studded with wildfowl and gazed northwards across the water, to a long chase of lawn and trees. A local authority van arrived, bringing hi-vis-clad gardeners. Was this the 17th century or the 21st? The depths of the countryside, or a few miles inside the M25? My introduction to Forty Hall several years ago immediately demonstrated how this place is imbued with layers of history, activity, local and city-wide resonance.
In summer 2017 I returned to the Hall to see a quiet but remarkable consideration of history, both of place and person. Allied with exquisite craft skills, this was Cos Ahmet’s solo exhibition Points of Juncture, a heartfelt response to Forty Hall, and a very successful marriage of the artist’s own preoccupations, and his reflections on being invited to show at this north London mansion. Forty Hall was once the home of Sir Nicholas Rainton, a successful merchant and business leader, both Master of the Haberdashers Company and Lord Mayor of London in his time.
A tapestry artist showing in a historic place seems conventional enough, in line with centuries of traditional craftsmanship. Privileged access to the wealthy for tapestry weavers is relevant today; their work is still commissioned, acquired and shown in stately homes alongside other heritage crafts: silversmithing, fine furniture, stone masonry and bookbinding. But the pairing of Cos Ahmet and Forty Hall was far from this pattern of luxury craftsmanship. Forty Hall was constructed by Rainton as his showpiece country house, and occupied by well-heeled families for centuries, but since 1951 it has been owned by a local authority. Enfield Council operates the Hall as an arts and leisure venue, set as it is in acres of rolling parkland, and incorporating a working farm and vineyard. Locals visit to exercise dogs, stretch their legs, eat in the café or picnic in the grounds, attend performances, discover local history and see art; mostly at no charge, in a distinct rebuff to the privilege that richness grants.
Cos Ahmet is a tapestry innovator, largely eschewing two-dimensional wall-hung surfaces, while simultaneously investigating himself and the concepts and processes of making. At the Hall his work cascaded from walls, spilled across floors and invaded museum display cabinets; creating new stories in each room that questioned both the practice of making, and the hidden stories of the building. Building a Legacy was perhaps the most striking of these, especially commissioned by Forty Hall for the exhibition, and comprising dozens of small vessels, an armada spread across the floor of the Great Chamber, alluding to boats, hands and tapestry shuttles, but at the same time mysterious and unknowable. Ahmet says, “As a maker the hands are an important part of me. [They are my] ‘speaking point’… my way of talking and how the work is communicated.” This “speaks” of the maker’s hands and the shuttles employed in weaving, and also Forty Hall’s history, particularly the boats carrying luxury textile imports that formed the basis of Rainton’s wealth.
In the Hands of My Creator exemplifies best Ahmet’s deep enquiry into his own artistic practice. Cast hands are at the centre, smoothing a tangle of threads, making fine lines that are spun by multiple hands. Or not: the work could equally be read as an un-making. Ahmet is his own creator, but so was Rainton, the classic self-made man who even acquired and then demolished an adjacent former royal palace, in order to set his own stamp on the landscape of Enfield. Ahmet has partially “demolished” his own work and remade it for Forty Hall, in an intensive examination of his own beliefs as an artist. His revitalised practice allowed reconnection with what he values; In the Hands of My Creator is about the placement of the artist himself, a piece that abstracts the making process to a pair of hands, directing the process closely and tenderly. Index fingers direct our gaze to the Drawing Room’s intricate plasterwork ceiling, making clear an awareness of location and history.
While hands are a recurrent and important motif, the mind and sight are also key to Ahmet, with other works focused on heads and eyes. Sometimes literal self-portraits, casts of Ahmet’s face acted as originating points for woven threads that fell to the floor, suggesting speech or vision unknowable to us, the audience. The repeating face created ghostly impressions: was the artist haunting the exhibition, perhaps like Rainton at the Hall; always reconnecting us to the human story behind the finished creation, be it a building or an artwork? Drawboy made this point simply: face and hand opposed each other from wall to plinth, forever linked by the thread being teased from the lips, both obvious as a metaphor for making, and enigmatic with closed eyes and mouth.
Perhaps more disturbing was My Tears Form Structure, the face reduced to a rough square, with huge tubes of woven thread emanating from the eye sockets, descending into a writhing bundle of cords. Ahmet finds tears “fascinating and affirming”. He plays with the notion of “structure” – the cords are indeed finely made and show occasional glimpses of colour (remarkable in a primarily monotone exhibition), but on the floor they are disordered. The placement at Forty Hall layered the references, as the work was next to an aperture in a wall, the only place where the internal structure of the house can be seen by visitors.
In making Ahmet doesn’t plan too much, but “Likes the process to take over. get lost in the moment, let things just happen…. [I] let it dictate itself.” The most mysterious piece at Forty Hall was Tender Filum, displayed in the bedchamber, but expertly designed, suggesting anything but an organic development. A series of woven elements lay across the length of the bedcover, suggesting a body, but a spare one with many elements missing. A large piece was perhaps the torso or an enlarged internal organ, others suggested a spine, it wasn’t clear. But there was no doubt about the head, open at the back and full of red matter that must have been a brain. The disturbing eye trails of corded thread were present too, but what commanded attention was a second face, a translucent mask suspended to face downwards toward the other, with cord issuing from the mouth. Ahmet’s notion of his work as “unsettling but calm” was fully realised here, in a work that is entirely self-referential. While the work was not made for Forty Hall, the bed as a place of birth was the perfect location. The knotted and corded thread was in endless renewal with its maker, as thought, as sight, as craftsmanship, as the linking device between all of Ahmet’s carefully considered ideas and works.
[i]All quotations from the artist are from a telephone conversation with the author on 29 December 2017. This essay features in Cos Ahmet's first title 'Points of Juncture' published by Forty Hall Estate.
Image: Cos Ahmet 'Tender Filum', 2016 (detail). Photo: Yeshen Venema
Liz Cooper is a curator and project manager focused on contemporary craft and design, especially art textiles. She works with many venues and organisations across the UK to build audiences and contexts for craft and design practice. Since 2014 Liz has been part-time development manager for Design-Nation, a portfolio of leading designers and craftspeople in the UK. Previously she worked for The National Centre for Craft & Design, Smiths Row and Contemporary Art Society.
Liz has a busy independent practice and has a long-standing role with The Knitting & Stitching Shows as a consultant and project manager. Recent touring exhibitions include "What Do I Need to Do to Make It OK?" and "Beauty is the First Test". In 2018 she is curating The 62 Group of Textile Artists’ forthcoming exhibition at MAC Birmingham, and working with Jane Hoodless, artist in residence at Cockpit Arts London.