A HUMUMENT: The allegory of mutant art

By Pablo Medel. April 2, 2012


Maybe it all started in the 50s when John Cage found that copy of the I Ching –the Chinese Oracle of Change–, which became the starting point of a such a polyhedral and original work. And, as fate would have it –that’s what Taoism is like–, his yang could easily be the English painter, writer and composer Tom Phillips.

It’s 1965. Phillips holds in his hands a Paris Review where the controversial William Burroughs explains how the cut-up concept appeared. And he comes up with an idea. The rules are easy: find a book for threepence and, with all the techniques available to him, transform it completely, both in its syntactic and pictorial level.

Said and done. In a second hand bookshop he finds a copy of an unknown book, A Human Document, written in 1892 by the Victorian novelist William Mallock. The story, a diary with xenophobic overtones, tells the philosophical diatribes of a rich poet, Robert Grenville, who falls in love with the widow of a Jew veteran, Irma Schilizz. The perfect starting point to get some work done. And the first thing he needs is to create a new character. Beyond coincidences –the “love” in “glove”–, he realises that the words with a higher recurrence are “together”, “altogether” and “bill”. Taking out the spare letters, he finds the name of his new character: Bill Toge. From there onwards and with patience and creativity to develop this titanic task, he transforms with his watercolours the 367 pages of the new book that comes out in 1967, under the shortened title A Humument.

Visual poetry, expressionist portraits, a tribute to pointillism, abstract impressionism, collage, shape poetry… Everything has its place in this total, impressive and, above all, amazingly contemporary experiment. A Humument updated and reverted Schiller's ideas or Mallarme’s literary symbolism, a constant in Phillips’ work, and it also greatly influenced all future work by this versatile English creator. An example, his opera Irma, inspired in Mallock’s character.

The book, at last digitized, can be downloaded here for both iPhone and iPad. The Fifth Edition of A Humument will be launched in May 2012 by Thames & Hudson on occasion of Tom Philips' 75th birthday.

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