File Note 78: Phoebe Cummings - Camden Art Centre

Essays by Zoe Laughlin and Brian Dillon



An Introduction to Ceramics Images  Sublimed References Quote Biography Credits

An Introduction to Ceramics

Materials perform. Stuff is constantly getting up to things. Matter is doing all of the time, at varying scales of time and space, in order to exist and generate the world of objects. 

When one thinks of objects made from ceramics, images of fine china plates or stoneware pots typically come to mind. Objects made from a material that is transformed from wet slippery clay into a hard and brittle substance that is liable to chip, crack or shatter. Despite this fragility, ceramics are in fact extremely durable materials, unmatched in their resistance to corrosion and decay. The fact that our knowledge of ancient civilisations is often based on excavated ceramic artifacts is testament to this. They are very strong under compression, can show extraordinary heat resistance, and are easily moulded before firing. 

The material make-up of ceramics is a combination of metallic and glassy characteristics. The structure is similar to that of metals, with crystalline grains forming and fusing to build a solid mass. However, the presence of non-metals such as oxygen, carbon and nitrogen, combined with silicon and various metals, leads to a more intricate and complicated structure than in metals, with amorphous glassy phases forming amongst the crystalline grains. This complexity in chemical constituents and structure means that ceramics can be engineered to exhibit a huge range of different properties, tailored to an individual application.

Clay, an abundant and easily extracted natural resource, forms the basis of traditional ceramics. The chemical composition of clay varies depending on its geographical origin, but they are all based on silicate minerals with assorted metallic constituents. When wet, these mixtures form a mouldable mass, which is then dried and fired to create the final ceramic. During firing, any remaining water evaporates and silicate crystal grains form. A glassy silica phase also forms during firing which spreads throughout the structure, acting as a solid glue between the crystalline grains. Although this sort of structure is rigid and strong, the boundaries between the different phases provide a highway for crack propagation, giving rise to the brittle character of this material. The situation is further confounded by the presence of pores which form in almost all ceramics.

Modern engineered ceramics can exhibit some extraordinary properties such as ultra-hardness and extraordinarily high heat resistance. Traditional ceramics are used to make objects such as bricks and tiles, whereas engineered ceramics are used as high-pressure bearings, ultra-strong turbine blades, super-sharp knives and as heat-resistant shields for space vehicles. Instead of being moulded as a wet mass, these ceramics generally start off as powdered ingredients mixed with a polymeric binder. This mixture is then shaped by methods such as extrusion, pressing, casting or injection moulding, before being fired to sinter the powder into a solid mass. A particularly impressive example is silicon nitride, that exhibits extreme hardness second only to diamond.


In 1866 John Ruskin published a short, curious volume called The Ethics of the Dust, based on a series of talks on crystallography delivered at Winnington Hall, a girls’ school in Cheshire. In the course of his lectures Ruskin asks us to imagine ‘the mud or slime of a damp over-trodden path, in the outskirts of a manufacturing town.’ Even here, among brick dust, clay, sand and soot, ‘under great pressure and over great tracts of time’, the purity of a crystal will one day resolve itself. However abject the elemental ooze, ‘there seems to be a continual effort to raise itself into a higher state … The soft white sediments of the sea draw themselves, in process of time, into smoothed knots of sphered symmetry; burdened and strained under increase of pressure, they pass into a nascent marble.’

There is something of Ruskin’s lesson in the infinitely slow exaltation of dirt and dust about the art of Phoebe Cummings, and not only because in certain works there are hard (or seemingly hard) crystalline forms strewn among the more friable artefacts. Such is the extreme delicacy of some of her inventions in unfired clay—notably but not only the flowers—that one has to use the old alchemical term and say they have been sublimed out of base material. And yet: isn’t it exactly the florid unruliness, the sheer vagrant mess, of that matter that we see flourish in her work? So many of her forms look as if they have only lately and barely emerged from some antediluvian swamp or desert; they struggle upwards by mineral or vegetal increments, and sometimes fall softly back to welcoming earth.

At such moments of collapse we might note that Cummings has invoked the vanitas tradition with some of these works. There is certainly a deathly hush about small arid landscapes imprisoned under glass, or blooms that slump dustily in their vases. The fact that these frail works are contrived and frequently destroyed in situ adds to the funereal impression. They seem frozen in time like Miss Haversham’s wedding cake in Dickens’ Great Expectations, or petrified like the west African jungle in J. G. Ballard’s novel The Crystal World. Except that the dead medium looks as though it may come to life. Earth, clay, dust: they are all obscurely, obscenely alive after all.

In a short essay on dust published in his journal Documents, Georges Bataille wrote: ‘The storytellers have not realised that the Sleeping Beauty would have awoken covered in a thick layer of dust; nor have they envisaged the sinister spiders’ webs that would have been torn apart at the first movement of her red tresses.’ She still wakes despite all this.


J.G.Ballard The Drowned World  Berkley Books(1962)

Robert Finlay The Pilgrim Art: Cultures of Porcelain in World History University of California Press(2010)

Margaret E.Collinson Fossil Plants of the London Clay Wiley-Blackwell(1984)

Gabriel Garcia Marquez One Hundred Years of Solitude Jonathan Cape(1967)

W.G. Sebald The  Rings of Saturn Eichborn(1998)

Jules Verne Journey To The Centre of The Earth Pierre-Jules Hetzel (1871)

John Carpenter (Dir.) The Fog (1980)

Terry Gilliam (Dir.) Brazil (1985)

Avi Lewis & Naomi Klein (Dir.) The Take (2004)

Werner Herzog (Dir.) Cave of Forgotten Dreams (2011)

Chris Watson El Tren Fantasm Touch (2011)

Chris Watson Weather Report Touch (2003)

 ‘Too many of the other buildings around the lagoon had long since slipped and slid away below the silt, revealing their gimcrack origins, and the Ritz now stood in splendid isolation on the west shore, even the rich blue moulds sprouting from the carpets in the dark corridors adding to its 19th Century dignity.’ JG Ballard, The Drowned World


Phoebe Cummings (b.1984) studied Three-Dimensional Crafts at the University of Brighton before completing an MA in Ceramics & Glass at the Royal College of Art (2006). She has undertaken a number of artist residencies, in the UK, USA and Greenland, including a three-month Arts/Industry residency at the Kohler Co. factory, Wisconsin (2008) and six months as ceramics artist-in-residence at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London (2010). Recent exhibitions in 2011 include 60|40 Starting Point Series at Siobhan Davies Studios, London; Formed Thoughts at the Jerwood Space London and Swept Away: Dust, Ashes and Dirt in Contemporary Art & Design at the Museum of Arts & Design, New York.  Phoebe Cummings was selected as the winner of the British Ceramics Biennial Award (2011) and has been awarded the second Ceramics Fellowship at Camden Arts Centre, London from August 2012 – April 2013. She has a solo show at the University of Hawai’i Art Gallery, Honolulu (February–April 2013).


‘An Introduction to Ceramics’
Zoe Laughlin is a co-founder/director of the Institute of Making and the Materials Library project

Brian Dillon is UK editor of Cabinet magazine and Tutor in Critical Writing at the Royal College of Art.

Supported by the Headley Trust.