A piece of art that means something to me…
The last time that I actually studied art was at GCSE, so I can give testimony to the fact that even when you’re not living and breathing art for your course, you very quickly realise that it’s ever-present within life – from the photos I’m constantly taking when I walk around campus (in my defence, it is always pretty) to the frequently stunning cinematography of my favourite films.
It took a while – and many false starts – to pick a piece of art that really does mean something to me. I finally realised that it had to be Tom Phillip’s A Humument. This is a constant source of fascination to me, as both a lover of art and of stories (I’m an English student, so now that I think about it, it really makes a lot of sense – my entire creative project for Fine Art GCSE revolved around my defence of overlooked books).
A Humument is an art project which Phillips began in 1966, after buying W.H. Mallock’s 1892 novel A Human Document – a purposefully obscure book – for the price of threepence. For decades all the 367 pages of this book have been transformed by Phillips through painting, drawing, collaging and cut-up techniques (he also burned one page), to create an entirely new version by carefully selecting a handful of words and letters of the text to leave unobscured, starting with his altered title A Hum[an Doc]ument. The beauty of this project is that different stories and messages evolve from reimaging the relationships between words in the text. Initially insignificant words are made central and meanings are irrevocably altered through forming alternative connections. Even Phillips’s protagonist Toge emerges out of editing the words ‘together’ and ‘altogether’. The material from a Victorian novel is reshaped into visual and verbal poetry, a ‘teeming world of humour, sex, sadness and art that would have baffled and shocked the conservative Mallock’ (Smyth, 2012: 35).
Pages from Tom Phillips’s A Humument
That this project evolved into six editions that spanned half of a century just goes to show how many different messages and narratives can be created using this technique. Phillips has revised and replaced every single one of his original pages throughout his editions and even released a digital version in which people can randomly select two pages and consider, through the juxtaposition, new possibilities and implications. Critics disagree on how exactly to treat A Humument, on whether the art is of quotation or reformulation, of destruction or creation, and of authorship or non-authorship. I see this controversy as a good thing. The imagination that drives this spectacular interplay of the visual and the verbal aspects of art to present an entirely new – and thought-provoking – perspective, has had a much greater impact upon my attitude to creativity, reading and to art than I’d perhaps initially realised.
More pages from and the cover of the final edition of Tom Phillips’s A Humument
By Emma Putland
Smyth, A. (October 2012) ‘Double Act: A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel by Tom Phillips’ London Review of Books, 34(19), pp.35-6. https://www.lrb.co.uk/v34/n19/adam-smyth/double-act