A Humument by Tom Phillips (Review of the Final Edition)
Published by Thames & Hudson, 2016
It is appropriate, but infuriating, that an interview with the acclaimed British artist Tom Phillips should turn out to be barely retrievable. A Humument, the project on which Phillips has worked for fifty years, has seen him subject the overbearing prose of a mediocre Victorian novel to a succession of ‘treatments’ in drawing, painting and collage. Given the trove of fragments, half-heard flotsam and scrambled sentiments that he has unearthed during this process, there is something oddly felicitous about having to salvage the artist’s own words from the vagaries of unforeseen circumstance. Thanks to a dodgy app, downloaded especially for the telephone interview in order to capture every scintillating exchange, the playback of the conversation sounded as if Mr Phillips was speaking face down from the bottom of a disused mineshaft under a pile of blankets. For that reason, much of what follows is an appreciation of A Humument rather than the transcription of a virtually lost dialogue. But Tom Phillips was a really nice bloke to talk to – and that fact transcends the interference.
For those unfamiliar with the back story, one day in 1966 Tom Phillips spotted a rack of books outside a furniture store in Peckham Rye, picked up the first one that came to hand, and made the dissection of it a lifetime’s work. The book in question was A Human Document by William Hurrell Mallock, first published in 1892. As a prime specimen of blustering Victorian conservatism, Mallock is blessed with a literary style laced with snobbery along with the occasional dash of anti-Semitism —such deplorable attributes combined with a complete lack of humour made him the perfect candidate for Phillips’ “unwitting collaborator.” Since first getting his hands on the book all those years ago Phillips has, over the course of several editions, both ransacked and enhanced Mallock’s haughty old pot-boiler, turning each page into a distinct artwork in itself. He has done this by applying a technique which has seen him overlay a multifarious array of illustration onto each page of the novel, whilst selecting odd words and phrases from the original text to permeate the imagery. The result has been likened, amongst other things, to viewing a succession of textual rivers or lakes scattered over a constantly changing graphic landscape.
In purely visual terms alone, to leaf through A Humument is to be struck by its sheer abundance, full as it is of intricate abstraction, gnomic, repetitive patterns, comic book tempo and collisions of found imagery. At first glance it is a cacophony of a book, one that does not give the beholder a chance to grasp what's going on. To open it is to be pitched into some long-standing exchange of coded messages, with the unseen protagonists bringing anything and everything to bear to prove some recondite point. But that's at first glance. Stick with the whole colourful altercation for long enough, and those glints of Mallock's prose allowed to remain uncovered soon provide a steadying, Sibylline dimension which is key to the success of the entire project. Indeed, Phillips is adamant that whenever he has started work on a new page “the quest for text is always the first thing,” and when the right combinations reveal themselves their resonance informs the surrounding designs. This regard to the text as a primary source of inspiration is epitomised in the artist's choice of a title for the whole work, A Humument being the phrase chanced upon when the title page was folded in such a way as to distort Mallock's original title— Phillips describes the result as “earthy...I like even the effortful sound of it.” A similar process of decontextualisation and distortion takes place throughout the rest of the book's three hundred-odd pages. The results can be ominous, unsettling, elegiac, bawdy and occasionally, lest we start to get the hang of it, completely incomprehensible. In the process, we start to become aware of a sustained cadence, a manner of speaking in which the revealed text blurts out utterances reminiscent of someone talking in their sleep, with a lot preying on their mind.
This kind of trance-like discourse surrounded on the page by all the improbably fluctuating decor of a dream conjures up associations with HCE's epic slumber in Finnegans Wake. Indeed, the likes of James Joyce and that other great language dismantler, William Burroughs, have been identified as casting their shadows over parts of A Humument. For that matter, Phillips has readily acknowledged the early importance of Burroughs' “cut up” technique on his work, describing the author of The Naked Lunch on the one occasion that he met him as “chilling” but “brilliant.” To return to Joyce, it is perhaps not surprising to find that seminal Modernist's most famous disciple, Samuel Beckett, as another presence glimpsed in Phillips' book, with a paraphrase of Worstward Ho's advice to “fail better” putting in a brief appearance. Meanwhile, E. M. Forster (who, Phillips told me, once presented him with a school prize) has had his celebrated epigraph “only connect” from Howards End reconstituted on a number of occasions throughout the various editions of A Humument, fittingly so given the phrase's associations with deriving the exalted from the prosaic or, in the present case, realising the potential of a humdrum, obscure old novel to harbour fascinating correspondences. The scatterings of these and other literary voices throughout, along with Phillips' employment of photographic collage to telling effect, shouldn't suggest that A Humument is basically a scrapbook of verbal and visual quotes. It has its own discrete cohesion, with even —once one tunes into the book's own curious ambience— a plot to follow. Rather than just appropriating off-cuts from Mallock's text and reconstituting them to arcane effect as in some surrealist parlour game, Phillips has instead unearthed the character of Bill Toge, whose romantic adventures we intermittently follow. “Toge” is derived from the words 'altogether' and ‘together‘: Phillips set himself the requirement to shorten them in order to reveal his protagonist’s surname in the text every time he came across them. Of his uncovered hero Phillips has said, “I found the guy on the page and he came with the word ‘bill’ … which sounds like Mister Bloke to me, Mister Ordinary Chap.” Bill Toge's love interest in A Humument is found in the form of the somewhat mysterious, somewhat capricious Irma, whom he pursues with varying degrees of encouragement and success throughout the book. Rather than being one of Phillips' found characters, Irma Schilizzi is the beautiful heroine of Mallock's original novel who every so often, and known only by her first name, peers through what chinks have been left open in the Victorian text to delight and frustrate poor old Bill Toge, stranded in A Humument's mutable terrain. Over successive editions other dramatis personae have made brief cameo appearances—Ted Wink, Eve Sardine and Mrs Mornspot —whilst the mercurial Irma was even the eponymous subject of an opera by Phillips. Whilst the relationship between Toge and Irma is not exactly A Humument's sine qua non, that Toge and Irma are lurking in the colourfully treated pages amidst the hubbub of Greek chorus-like anonymous commentators lends an important sense of cohesion and narrative impetus to the whole proceedings.
This final version of A Humument marks half a century of Phillips revisiting Mallock's original to come up with successively reworked editions. Not that, as Phillips assured me, this had ever become an onerous task: “I found that when I'd done it once I wasn't satisfied and had great pleasure in thinking I could do the whole thing again.” That zest for tackling the project anew is much in evidence in the final edition. As in earlier versions, a succession of wonderfully perplexing phrases wind, tributary-like, down the page. Personal favourites include “velvet/The travelling regions of sleep/smoked/and shadow starred,” “the gallery of a/hundred years/of a thousand/is in every street,” “Here comes the past at last,” and “taste the world, he said/Look through the air and/coloured vapours/look at a story/the windows told,” all of which take their place amongst some ribald old classics such as “evening Arthur calm your member.” However, for the full effect of Phillips' impressive instinct for discerning a choice concoction amongst the thickets of Mallock's prose, it's best to encounter these discoveries in situ, set into the graphic backdrop that the artist has created for them.
At the end of this last edition Phillips himself steps forward and, in the form of a dozen or so pages of “Notes to A Humument,” gives his own perspective on the whole enterprise and its final incarnation. He declares that, “like most projects that end up lasting a lifetime,” his interest in the type of word experiments that fill A Humument “had its germ in idle play,” a remark which brings to mind Joyce's take on his own particular brand of ludic creativity in writing Finnegans Wake: “I know it is no more than a game but it is a game that I have learned to play in my own way. Children may just as well play as not. The ogre will come in any case.” Phillips recounts how, having brought his copy of A Human Document home that day in 1966, he opened it only to realise that he had “stumbled upon a treasure,” such were the possibilities that he saw for turning it into a “treated novel”— whilst he also admits that “I have to this day never read it properly from beginning to end.” By 1973 Phillips had altered every page, “but the feeling that I could fail better than that began to nag,” and so the whole process began again. Since that time he has applied the textual excavations which constitute A Humument to a number of other projects, including illustrations for Dante's Inferno and an edition of Cicero's Orations, all in all estimating that he has extracted “well over a thousand segments of poetry and prose” and that he has yet to find “a situation, sentiment or thought which the words cannot be adapted to cover.” As years of this immersive reconfiguration of Mallock's book draw to a close there is, however, one page which Phillips, as he puts it, “deliberately held back so that the original author and I might end our collaboration of fifty years together.” Fittingly, this is the last page of Mallock's yarn, upon which the artist has superimposed a photograph of the novelist's headstone. Phillips had previously been unsuccessful in tracking down the last resting place of his unsuspecting collaborator, who died in 1923, until a friend located it just as the final edition of A Humument was being completed. It is a plain memorial, surrounded by long grass and time-patinated with flecks of umber moss. Adorning this snapshot of Mallock's gravestone, Phillips has exposed the following sinuous epitaph: “to the sole and only begetter of this volume/by whose bones my bones/my best perpetuate/your grave in mine fused/page for page.”
A Humument represents just one facet of Tom Phillips' formidable and varied body of work. Over the course of several decades he has been an art teacher (with, most notably, Brian Eno as a star pupil), exhibited all over the world, curated extensively, collaborated in a range of disciplines, held prestigious positions in the arts world, and authored several books, including the wonderful Postcard Century. He is without doubt one of the most important living English artists, as adept and innovative in portraiture as he is in, say, printmaking. Indeed, such is the range of media that Phillips has successfully tackled, it almost seems unduly myopic to see A Humument as his chef d’oeuvre, but that is how it is spoken of —not, it should be added, to the artist's particular chagrin. During our brief conversation it seemed abundantly clear that Phillips' delight in repeatedly immersing himself in Mallock's book to fuel his own, lifelong Gesamtkunstwerk remained undimmed. The sense of sustained enthusiasm and creative gusto palpable on every page is, perhaps, a key factor in why A Humument has so captivated its devotees over the years. Despite the fact that there is now a final edition, this is not a book to read for one last time, reverently consign to the shelf and forget about. It remains too hectic and vibrant and strange for that. --Mark Jones