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 coffee-table 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. From these rivers emerge Phillips’s own poetry along with, for example, lines from Samuel Beckett that Phillips has found ‘lying latent’ in Mallock’s novel.
While sticking closely to the rules that framed its creation, A Humument has an uncanny knack of keeping up with the times. In the Sixties it read like a development of William Burroughs’s cut-up method for remixing text, along with composer John Cage’s use of chance music. Twenty years later, the work’s playful way with authorship, fragmented narrative and ornament embodied the spirit of postmodernism. And now, in the digital age, A Humument has flourished, first on the web and then with its own iPad app.
One of the glories of the work is that, even in digital form, it both retains ancient traditions of bookcraft and messes playfully with them. Notionally it is the story of the frustrated love for Irma (who is native to Mallock’s original text) felt by Bill Toge (a protagonist of Phillips’s invention). I confess I’ve never been able to follow the story, which may be partly down to the fact that the work is also haunted by the ghost of Tristram Shandy. (Recent revisions have seen Toge’s profile shrinking, since his appearances are restricted to those pages where the words ‘together’ or ‘altogether’ feature in Mallock’s original text, and these pages have now been exhausted.)
But what A Humument may lack in narrative coherence is more than compensated for by its creator’s deft and uncanny ability to add layers, links and echoes of other works (his own and others). The Fifth Edition (published by Thames & Hudson), alongside the iPad version, which is updated more frequently, reminds us that continuous layering and revision is the modus operandi of perhaps not just this work but of much creative endeavour, too.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated May 19, 2012