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ID number:  BIRRC-A0982
Institution:  Research and Cultural Collections
Named collection:  Campus Collection of Fine and Decorative Art
Artist / Maker:  Phillips, Tom (b. 1937)
Title / Object name:  A Humument
Object type:  Screenprint
Materials:  Screen prints
Measurements:  50 x 81.28 cm
BIRRC-A0982.jpg

In 1966, English artist Tom Phillips happened upon a copy of W. H. Mallock’s novel A Human Document at a London flea market. Though he did not realise at the time, this tiny twist of fate would spark a forty year long project that has come to be known as A Humument. A Humument is a portmanteau, meaning a word that is formed by blending the words (Hum)an and Doc(ument). It falls into the category of a transformed artist’s book, with Phillips working and reworking pages from the original ‘found’ text to this day. Interventions into the novel have taken the form of obliterating vast areas of the text with paint washes, ink, and collage fragments, leaving only stray words that float amoeba-like, sometimes attaching themselves by way of the rivers in the text. Verging on concrete poetry, and owing a debt to the cut-up experiments of William S. Burroughs, these fractured sentences form a narrative of sorts, telling the story of Bill Toge, a hopeless romantic pining for his beloved Irma. Here you can see ten pages from the original edition of the altered book reproduced as screen-prints. It is important to note that this is not the order in which the pages appeared in Mallock’s book but one selected by Phillips. Frustrating any attempt to make sense of these pages as a narrative whole, Phillips therefore implicates the reader/viewer in creating their own meanings and stories rather than relying on the narrative delineated by the author. The prints provoke all manner of visual and verbal interpretations. Looking at a single page you may see what appears to be a lunar landscape, which then comes to resemble an underwater scene; the planets and other cosmic bodies becomes floating jellyfish and strange globular creatures. Another of the prints could be read both as a geographical formation or a disembodied female torso. Here Phillips highlights words like ‘groan’ and ‘hard’ which removed from their original context and combined with a suggestive silhouette take on new erotic meaning.

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