Friday, July 15, 2005

Enter Toge


A Humument is an ongoing work by British artist Tom Phillips. Begun in the 1960s, it was privately published by the Tetrad Press in 1970, and was subsequently picked up by Thames & Hudson in 1980, since when it has become a bit of an art cult.

A Humument is a 'treated Victorian novel'. For forty years, Phillips has been sketching, painting, altering, slicing and dicing, page by page, W.H.Mallock's A Human Document, a fairly uninspiring - but textually rich - novel published in 1892, which he found in a second hand bookshop in London.

The results are a series of poems and micro-narratives, startlingly evocative, often moving and frequently hilarious. They can be profound - "logical. maintain this - that man is only human because of his longing this - that life has lost all its hopes, and death none of its" (1970 ed., p. 25) - or frankly sexual, as above. They can be long or extremely brief - one of my favourite pages was created by blocking out all words except "the theatre: never again", leaving only the full stops, which, ringed, become a hundred staring eyes.

While the style of the illustrations varies, a continuous voice soon arises from the text. The best example of this is the ongoing story of semi-hero Toge, a shaky pink figure who moves through the book, his tale spelt out in fits and starts: "only toge, alone. loneliness is. throb of my watch, long. shrivelled aspiration. I have something left. two things left. first- my viola. the other thing- your image. I cannot get rid of it" (1970 ed., p. 305).

Thames and Hudson recently published the fourth edition of the book. The artist's stated goal is to gradually update and rework pages until the work has entirely replaced itself. This edition marks a particular watershed, as all the pages which could host a 'toge' story (i.e. all the pages which contain the word 'together', toge's only possible source) have done so, and it remains only for his story to fade from the work.

You can view the original 1970 edition, and read more about the work, here, and I can't recommend the print edition highly enough. And if you find an edition of A Human Document in some dusty bookshop, I suggest you send it to Tom. He needs more copies.

There's also a thematic link with Zak Smith's illustrations for every page of Gravity's Rainbow, a similarly tortuous and enlightening undertaking.


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