A Humument: Visual-Poetic Artist’s Book
Tom Phillips, A Humument: Page 55, Tetrad Press Edition, 1970[-75]
A Humument is a treated book by British artist Tom Phillips based on a Victorian novel. It was born in 1966 when Phillips read about William Burroughs’ cut-up technique. Wanting to do something similar, Phillips decided that the first coherent book he came across “for threepence would serve.” That book was the novel A Human Document by W.H. Mallock, published in 1892. For Phillips, the novel was a treasure of unequaled and lasting value:
I have yet to find a situation, statement or thought which its words cannot be adapted to cover.
Indeed, over the years Phillips has used Mallock’s novel for projects beyond A Humument, most notably the opera IRMA, every primary component of which was culled from A Human Document.
Tom Phillips, A Humument: Page 79, Tetrad Press Edition, 1970[-75]
In creating the pages of A Humument, Phillips always determined the text first. Some pages, because of the sheer range of possibilities, took years. Certainly the artist was in no hurry, working in the evenings, he said, “so that I might not, had the thing become a folly, regret the waste of days.” He did not produce the pages in numerical order, and would sometimes employ chance techniques. The work, Phillips wrote, became “the solution for this artist of the problem of wishing to write poetry while not in the real sense of the word being a poet.”
Tom Phillips, A Humument: Page 159, Tetrad Press Edition, 1970[-75]
After selecting the desired text, Phillips would block out or obscure the unused text with a variety of pens and water-soluble media. A good portion of the pages remained black and white. For the rest he employed color, sometimes in transparent washes, other times with boldly opaque blocks and biomorphs. Winding tubular arms often connect the selected passages of text. In the end, Phillips had produced, for every page of Mallock’s novel, a corresponding page which both covered and revealed what had been before. This outcome fulfilled his stated intention on page one:
The following sing I a book of art and that which he hid reveal I.
Tom Phillips, A Humument: Page 229, Tetrad Press Edition, 1970[-75]
The types of pages Phillips created can be sorted into a few broad categories. The black and whites (transparent and opaque); transparent color washes both biomorphic and geometric; opaque designs both biomorphic and geometric; collage; and painting or illustration. The painting and illustration pages suggest well-known artworks, painting styles or architectural structures. The pages utilizing transparent washes reveal more of the underlying text, while the opaque designs allow for optimum manipulation by the artist as well as the addition of new material. A Humument is divided roughly in half between the two basic types, with a sprinkling of curiosities, such as this one, which looks like a Kurt Schwitters collage:
Tom Phillips, A Humument: Page 81, Tetrad Press Edition, 1970[-75]
Because A Humument is presented as a correlative book in numerical order, one might be justified in looking for a narrative in its succession of pages, especially since Phillips introduced a new character named Toge, possible when the words “together” or “altogether” appear in Mallock’s text. I have read A Humument from start to finish and I’m convinced that this is far from the best way to appreciate it. It is a book to be leafed through at random, like any art or poetry book. Whatever story may exist is negligible, and the best poetry—both in terms of text and as concrete poetry—occurs at random. Page 314 is a fine example of it:
Tom Phillips, A Humument: Page 314, Tetrad Press Edition, 1970[-75]
This is not to say that a comparison of the twin books will not reward one’s interest. In a fascinating essay comparing the two, Daniel Traister explains how similar the two works are, both formally and ideologically, despite their extreme differences:
Mallock’s political and religious views were threatened by many aspects of modernity. He sought nonetheless to construct an intellectually respectable means of reconciling the conflicting ways of apprehending the reality he experienced. But neither Mallock nor his contemporaries, however clearly they saw these threats and recognized their significance, could contain or control them. Their very efforts contained the seed of their failure. The undertone of radical instability often characteristic of their works reflects their awareness of this failure.
This is how we find Bill Toge of A Humument—failing to find either love or form, forever a shape-shifting chameleon, suspended in brilliantly constructed compositions of classical simplicity.
Mark Kerstetter is a major contributor to Escape into Life. Along with poetry, he writes fiction and essays on art and literature. He loves to draw and make art out of wood salvaged from demolition sites, and samples it all on his blog.
Thank you, Chris