Exhibition: A Humument (Tom Phillips)

What is old is now made new. What is broken down is rebuilt, simultaneously. What was lost is now found.

Stained with ink and gouache, collaged, and thoroughly deconstructed, the pieces of Tom Phillips’ masterwork, A Humument, sit not-so-quietly in the quiet halls of the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art. A collection of altered pages from a book, A Humument is black out poetry, graphic novel, and collage rolled into one, built from the foundations of an artwork long forgotten.

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The birth of A Humument took place in 1966, when Phillips decided to pick up a used book for threepence and operate on it for a long project. He chanced upon the ninth edition of a Victorian novel called A Human Document by William H. Mallock – a book of considerable popularity at one time but now rendered obsolete. Influenced by the likes of William S. Burroughs, Phillips used the cut-up technique to hide unwanted words and leaving others to show through, often connecting them with meandering pathways composed of space between the original words. Likewise, the book was christened by omitting the middle letters of the original title: A Human Document.

Using Mallock’s work as a canvas, Phillips builds a tale of his own with a protagonist, Bill Toge, named after the original author and whose name appears on every page that the words ‘together’ or ‘altogether’ appear. Phillips states that, like the meandering roads that connect the remaining words, his story is “the non linear narrative of one who has a bumpy ride on the roundabouts of art and love.”

It seems peculiarly appropriate, then, that the exhibit is currently housed in Mass MoCA. A converted factory building previously owned by Sprague Electric, Mass MoCA is located in North Adams, the smallest city in the state of Massachusetts. With a population of approximately 13,000, its economy started its downward spiral when the electric company went out of business, leaving the town “deindustrialized.” Like the transformation of A Humument, Mass MoCA represents rebirth and renewal in an otherwise outmoded town.

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The structure of the exhibit is as follows: the original pages of the book are posted in the first row, Phillips’ first treatment is posted in the row below, and the third row is constructed of pages from his still incomplete revision. Even apart from these editions, Phillips says he has been working on at least four other versions; forty-five years old and counting, the work is still actively in progress. The fifth and most recent edition of the book was published in 2012. In addition, a digital version has been created for the iPad and iPhone, and its plot became the basis of the lyrics and plot of IRMA – an opera by the University of York.

Some may regard Phillips’ work as mere sophisticated upcycling or even parasitic. But the feeling that A Humument elicits is truly one of a kind – refreshingly avant garde yet somehow earthen with traces of history.

The exhibit lasts through January 19, 2014. 

Exhibition Review by Robin Park

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