Books

An Artist’s 50-Year Project to Alter and Deconstruct a Victorian Novel

After five decades of mutating an obscure Victorian novel, Thomas Phillips’s A Humument is printed in its final form.

Page from A Humument (© 2016 Thames & Hudson Ltd, London/Tom Phillips)

When the artist Tom Phillips bought a dry Victorian novel called A Human Document by W. H. Mallock for threepence in 1966, he procured a muse that would endure in his life for over 50 years. The first altered version Phillips created of the 1892 book, which he retitled with the abbreviated A Humument, was published in 1970. It featured a new surreal tale on a character named Bill Toge, a story which Phillips had scratched out and masked with geometric patterns from the original text. (“Toge” himself appears nowhere in the Mallock language, the name cut from words like “together.”)

Cover of A Humument (courtesy Thames & Hudson)

Following a 1969 opera, a 2010 digital appexhibitions, a 1996 collaged skull, and several published versions, A Humument will finally be printed in its final edition in January 2017. A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel, released by Thames & Hudson, has every page completely reworked from the 1970 altered book (itself now at the Sackner Archive in Miami), with more elaborate collage and colorful paintings illustrating “the sad story of Bill Toge, one of love’s casualties.” There’s also a new meaning to the old words. For instance, on page nine, Phillips managed to form the phrases “three miniatures in her facebook” and “now in the app of this volume,” references that wouldn’t have made sense in the 1960s.

“In the years since Mallock wrote his novel, the English language has itself sent out new shoots,” Phillips writes in his introduction (which is actually at the back of the book). “He could not have imagined the future use of ‘plane’ for example. Similarly at the beginning of my own endeavor I could not have predicted the dark resonance that ‘bush’ suddenly came to have or how a simple word like ‘net’ would grow immeasurably in significance.”

Exploring the meandering narrative of A Humument remains oddly engaging, even with Phillips’s embrace of the chance art experiments of creators such as John Cage and William S. Burroughs. For instance, he manages to evoke some rather racy lines from the laced-up 19th-century tome. As one page professes in its found poetry: “after / a little / moonlight, toge / felt her / forest. / and came.”

Yet one of the last challenges of this edition related to Mallock himself. Phillips finally tracked down an image of his grave, and it’s his name carved in its stone that concludes the ultimate edition of A Humument. Over the tomb wind these concluding words that give tribute to their long posthumous collaboration: “by whose / bones my bones / my best, / perpetuate / your grave in mine fused / page / for / page.”

Pages from A Humument (photo of the book for Hyperallergic)
Pages from A Humument (photo of the book for Hyperallergic)
Page from A Humument (© 2016 Thames & Hudson Ltd, London/Tom Phillips)
Page from A Humument (© 2016 Thames & Hudson Ltd, London/Tom Phillips)
Page from A Humument (© 2016 Thames & Hudson Ltd, London/Tom Phillips)
Page from A Humument (© 2016 Thames & Hudson Ltd, London/Tom Phillips)
Page from A Humument (© 2016 Thames & Hudson Ltd, London/Tom Phillips)
Page from A Humument (© 2016 Thames & Hudson Ltd, London/Tom Phillips)
Page from A Humument (© 2016 Thames & Hudson Ltd, London/Tom Phillips)
Page from A Humument (© 2016 Thames & Hudson Ltd, London/Tom Phillips)
Page from A Humument (© 2016 Thames & Hudson Ltd, London/Tom Phillips)
Page from A Humument (© 2016 Thames & Hudson Ltd, London/Tom Phillips)

A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel by Tom Phillips is out from Thames & Hudson on January 10, 2017 .

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