Clay motions: the far from still lives of Phoebe Cummings

898 words

Gareth Evans

Installation view- Jerwood Encounters: Formed Thoughts, works by Phoebe Cummings. Image:
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Original things and their implications… and what matter in the poetic of the psyche comes before clay? Mud people, we are made and walk and sometimes talk. Clay in its wordness is a word as solid and building block as it is stuff. And yet… back to etymology and in Latin, it is ‘glue’, in the Greek, ‘sticky oil’. That is to say, it is not matter as firm but again as process, fluid. Binding rather than bound. A procedure with durational and finite imperatives, in one form at least…

See, we think we know the story of clay. Soon we’ll be back in the earth from which… and so on. Or in air, its tiny flocks of ash, but still returned; retrieved. But what if clay does not reclaim but rather transforms itself, permanently manifesting form; formed thoughts made active as worlds, topographies of unsettlement, too restless to be any one thing for too long. Moving on just at the point when it is noticed and named.

And not just bodies becoming humus, trees and other creatures (our beloved in the willow and the warble and the wind) but clay becoming other things of clay. Say the word enough and like all words it loses meaning and becomes a sound again. Then, at that point perhaps, it might be ready, prepared to become urgent afresh (to be as all words are at their first point of sounding, becoming something genuinely new in the mouth, out of a need, a need to be shared).

Phoebe Cummings is a site maker. That is, she makes on site and she makes site in her work. Formed but unfired clay is both an artefact and architecture, of ideas constantly in flux, of morphing forms. In this, the artist in Cummings operates more as an enabler, an interlocutor, rather than a maker sealed off and authoritative

Vladimir Nabokov, in his novel Transparent Things, spoke of ‘the dream life of debris’. W.G.Sebald wandered the ever-restless Suffolk coast for his English pilgrimage The Rings of Saturn and marvelled at the particularity (specific and fragmenting) of the geography, the land in constant erosion as the tides reclaimed it.

So, if Cummings speaks to larger hierarchies of belief, it is to this, to the philosophy of what happens. However, as known from the new Physics, matter is less destroyed than it is translated. Matter – and energy – cannot be unmade, but are instead reformed. Further, Jung, thinking on these things from the perspective of the (un)conscious and interior life, described matter as ‘spirit seen from without’ and described ideas, thoughts (formed and not) as matter also, and not simply because they are carried by material agents – the brain tissue and more. Ideas and emotions existing independently of their carriers, with the weight of presence; we know this of course to be true. Just because something cannot be seen or held in the open palm, it does not mean it is not.


‘The Eye of Silence’ by Max Ernst (1943)


That said, Cummings’ art, beyond the ideas and responses it provokes, undeniably is. Her worked masses, clumps, chains, mounds, tottering towers and stacks; her almost vulvic organisms at times, they all enter the realm of the organically active. They all feel as if at any moment they might breathe and shift, not just in dust collapse or implosion but as inhabited elements of a larger territory defined also by the component of their making.


Cappadocia, Turkey


This aspect challenges Cummings’ choice of installational title. Vanitas, with its connotations of transience, of existence ambered in key symbolic elements is complicated by this sense of ongoing aliveness in the clay zone made. The tradition of ‘still life’ Cummings references speaks of a (Latin) ‘emptiness’ in definition, portraying the drained vessels of earthly and human passage. Curiously, while aspects of her micro-geographies suggest settlements abandoned and overwhelmed, the larger imperative is of a pause, a sense of dormancy, not a dereliction; that occupants might re-appear at any moment.

There’s a strong literary, visual and cinematic lineage to this aesthetic; or rather, a reading or viewing of it that can be made in light of key makers. J.G.Ballard’s warped ecologies loom large, themselves lensed through the Surrealist landscapes of substantial alteration (Ernst and Dali especially), and these in their turn serving as the dream representatives of actually existing locations of luminous strangeness like Cappadocia. However, perhaps the most contemporary parallel can be found in Anselm Kiefer’s remarkable French ruin zone, as seen so strikingly in Sophie Fiennes’ witness documentary Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow.

from ‘Over Your Cities Grass Will Grow’, film by Sophie Fiennes on the work of Anselm Kiefer


But the zones suggested are not only ‘other’. The human body is implicit and explicit here, as suggested above. David Cronenberg’s perennial fascination with warped anatomies and Louise Bourgeois’ darkly feminine sculptural assemblages helpfully provoke.


Works by Louise Bourgeois


The cumulative impact of this ‘end-room’ in the exhibition is great. Matter in fevered speculation of its own shift. Volcanic ash clouds climbing the Icelandic morning, Pompeiis in the waiting; great forces at work, themselves being worked on. The sometimes silent, sometimes crashing dance of geologies…

And all of it lit by lamps as an experiment in waiting. Sealed vitrines and suspension. This is how we live and pass. Mobile clay beneath a sky, that shelters us or maybe seals us in.