Magazine article The Spectator

A Humument Long Revision

Magazine article The Spectator

A Humument Long Revision

Article excerpt

In 1966, under the influence of ideas about chance, the artist Tom Phillips pledged to take as the foundation for his next work the first book that he could find for threepence.

That book, discovered in a junk shop on Peckham Rye, was a long-forgotten Victorian romance in journal form, A Human Document by W.H. Mallock. Phillips set about effacing the pages of this book with sketched line drawings and gouache swathes of colour. The result was A Humument, described by Evan Anthony in the early Seventies in this magazine as 'one of the freshest and most original pieces of art-literary work you are likely to see'.

When he started on this unusual work, which inhabits a limbo between coffeetable art book and Finnegans Wake, Phillips at first held back, working on it only in the evenings, having resolved 'not to squander precious daylight hours of worktime' on what he suspected 'may be a wild, all-consuming folly'.

Forty-five years on, what could have become a dated Sixties curio has not only endured but has also anticipated successive generations of thought about image, text and meaning, right up to the iPad era. Phillips is 75 this month, and alongside two new exhibitions and the launch of a new website, he is publishing the 'Fifth Edition' of his treated Victorian novel.

Revision is the essence of A Humument, or, as the book itself says, 'the changes are the method'. From the beginning the text was reworked by being drawn over, cut up, highlighted and resequenced, and generally subjected to every adulteration imaginable.

In each new version since 1980, between 40 and 100 pages have been revised from the preceding edition. Alongside cut-ups and fold-ins, one of the trademarks of the work is the 'rivers in the type', as Phillips calls them, the thin lines of white page left untouched by his drawing, which join disparate phrases, words or part-words from across the original text into new phrases and blank verse. …

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