A Humument

Poetry and visual art by Tom Phillips

Since this is probably a book unlike anything you’ve seen before, the most helpful thing to begin with is a brief description of the concept, and thereby the object. Tom Phillips’ A Humument is subtitled A Treated Victorian Novel: in the late sixties the artist bought a dusty old Victorian hardback for a trivial sum in an antequarian bookseller’s, and turned the pages one by one into pictures, drawing, painting or printing over the text – in some places completely, in many leaving a poetic scattering of traces of the original. The book you hold is a facsimile of these several hundred pages in the format and order of the original novel; even the frontispiece is retained, the first overpainting being that necessary to adjust the original title, A Human Document. If that sounds a little cerebral, let me assure you that the object itself is a compact, highly concentrated dose of riotously colourful visual art and poetry. Both in the binding of so much high-gloss high-colour paper and the ordering and framing of so many discrete images and poems, it’s dense. There’s variety: turn by turn these pages are patterned and smooth, flat and spatial, drab and psychedelic, abstract and representational, confusing and enlightening, original and allusive.

The apparent temptation, then, would be to cut the thing up and plaster a wall with the pages (with a glue light enough to allow them to be turned over periodically so as not to miss a full fifty percent). But that would be to deny at least two whole dimensions of this work. For starters, the original novel isn’t totally obscured; either by the islands of text wilfully bounded by totally opaque colour, or by the traces showing through the transparent inky washes (like Atlantis viewed from the air), one can glean something of the plot of this slightly humdrum, but in its way atmospheric, romance. Staggeringly, though, intertwined with the original is a new story. Its telling is no way as explicit as a fully textual narrative; more like pictures it works by hint and suggestion, and in doing so it teaches you more of the properties of the text that it isn’t. It has, in its own way, characters (I’ll leave you to discover for yourself), and it both mirrors and departs from the underlying story in discernible ways. The moment when, flicking forwards or backwards through the pictures, you understand that it can (but doesn’t have to be) read sequentially, is one of great discovery.

The book was originally something of a cult, having spawned teeshirts and even an operetta, but I’m not sure if it still is – the first editions are dated before I was born so I’m sure there are some hippies my parents’ age who can tell me how late I’m coming to the party. To my knowledge it isn’t or wasn’t a big cult and so I’m not embarrassed to proselytise. I’ve bought several copies only to give them away when I next bump into someone who will appreciate; it’s that kind of book. The last place I found one was the Museum of Modern Art, Oxford, and that didn’t last long, dropped surreptitiously into the school bag of a Californian with an uncommon appreciation for life. (I wonder if she still has it.) I appreciate it because it’s one of a rare tribe (try the Grffin and Sabine trilogy by Nick Bantock, or a Dutch book whose name I forget with an illustrated map of life) with a combination of textual and visual which, though common in children’s literature, is in no way infantile.

Just discovered you can buy it on Amazon. Also check it out at www.humument.com.

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