Thursday, 19 April 2012

A Humument (Unsolicited Testimonial!)

I have several times made reference to the bookwork A Humument, by artist Tom Phillips. As a new, 5th edition of this mighty work of creative book defacement is shortly to appear, I thought it would be worth mentioning it again, if only to persuade you to buy a copy (for the first time, it's only being issued in paperback). Artists have to eat, too, even famous ones (and you only have to see a photo of Tom to see that he's a man who likes his food).

The project is so unique, and so long-lasting (begun in 1966 and still going); so involuted, self-referential and hermetic, yet so open-ended, inclusive and oracular; so witty, so funny, so filthy-mindedly sublime; so simply good to look at ... It's hard to know where to begin. At the beginning, I suppose. In TP's own words:

Like most projects that ended up lasting half a lifetime, this work started out as idle play at the fringe of my work and preoccupations. I had read an interview with William Burroughs (Paris Review 1965) and, as a result, had played with the “cut-up” technique, making my own variant (the column-edge poem) from current copies of the New Statesman. It seemed a good idea to push these devices into more ambitious service.

I made a rule; that the first (coherent) book I could find for threepence (i.e. one and a quarter pence) would serve.
Austin’s the furniture repository stood (until it closed in 1995) on Peckham Rye where Blake saw his first angels and along which Van Gogh had probably walked on his way to Lewisham. At this propitious place, on a routine Saturday morning shopping expedition, I found, for exactly threepence, a copy of A Human Document by W.H. Mallock, published in 1892 as a popular reprint of a successful three-decker. It was already in its seventh thousand at the time of the copy I acquired and cost originally three and sixpence. I had never heard of W.H. Mallock and it was fortunate for me that his stock had depreciated at the rate of a halfpenny a year to reach the requisite level. I have since amassed an almost complete collection of his works and have found out much about him. He does not seem a very agreeable person: withdrawn and humourless (as photographs of him seem to confirm) he emerges from his works as a snob and a racist (there are some extremely distasteful anti-semitic passages in A Human Document itself).

However for what were to become my purposes, his book is a feast. I have never come across its equal in later and more conscious searchings. Its vocabulary is rich and lush and its range of reference and allusion large. I have so far extracted from it over one thousand texts, and have yet to find a situation, statement or thought which its words cannot be adapted to cover.

(from the Introduction, on the official Humument website)

I'll say. Over the years, Tom has settled on a signature style of overpainting the pages of A Human Document, which isolates and links words (and parts of words) by following those wiggly typographic secret passages known to compositors as "rivers". This technique is both instantly recognizable and incredibly expressive; pages worked this way can become simultaneously yearningly sad, laugh-out-loud funny, and deeply filthy. In fact, those are the keynote tones of A Humument.

I have very recently got my hands on an iPad 2, and immediately downloaded the Humument app.  Well, of course!  It is simply amazingly, breathtakingly beautiful to look at, with that remarkable Apple screen resolution and those vibrant colours bringing out the true essence of the work, like pretty pebbles still wet from the sea.  Much as I love the books (I own as many editions in as many versions as I can find or afford) I have to say I think the app is actually better than the printed versions.  There is also a tongue-in-cheek "oracle" function which may, for all I know, give the I-Ching a run for its money.  And it only costs £4.99 -- ludicrous!

Bill Toge, the Humument's shapeless
 lump of a protagonist

N.B. If anyone has a little bit more money than £4.99 to invest, Tom Phillips sells signed, limited run Humument prints at very reasonable prices at his online gallery, and you can also get them at even more reasonable prices at the Shandy Hall online shop of the Laurence Sterne Trust, which is well worth your support (you have read Tristram Shandy, haven't you?).

No comments: