INTERVIEWS, REVIEWS & RELATED ARTICLES
New Musical Express MAY 16, 1981 - by Andy Gill
GOD, IS THIS SOMETHING TO DO WITH ENO?
A Humument by Tom Phillips
Subtitled 'A Treated Victorian Novel', A Humument represents an idea of devastating simplicity undertaken with rigorous - and slightly roguish - sensitivity, by an artist whose talents stretch beyond the confines of a single form.
Primarily a visual artist, Tom Phillips has here attempted what can perhaps best be thought of as a work of literary archaeology: the alteration and illustration of a quite probably irredeemably dull book of the last century, and the quarrying therefrom of poetic strains of thought and narrative not present (or maybe hidden) in the original work.
For this needle-in-a-haystack task, he chose the first coherent book he could find for threepence (that's old pence, about one and a quarter pence in today's toy money). This turned out to be a secondhand copy of W. H. Mallock's A Human Document, a popular Victorian novel originally published in 1892. This apparently unpleasant (snobbish, racist) volume Phillips describes as being, for his purposes, a feast... its vocabulary is rich and lush and its range of reference and allusion large.
From this book he's picked out and linked phrases and words which tell an alternative story, blocking out the rest of the text with colourful visual treatments which either illustrate the words, bringing out the undertones of mood or meaning, or merely providing a setting or framework for the visual display of the remaining lines of text. The contraction of the original title is a good indication of his method, the neologism 'Humument' possessing resonances particularly appropriate to the work: exhume, human, humus, humorous, document, parchment, monument... Phillips may claim, in his accompanying notes, that It is the solution for the artist of the problem of wishing to write poetry while not in the real sense of the word being a poet, but there's undoubtedly a very active poetic sensibility at work here and in lines like now the night-zones of dim steel turn tomorrow on.
Phillips's technique is rather like a volitional extension of the old Dada/Burroughs cut-up chestnut, an objet trouve with an added element of choice and determination; there's also something of the calligrams of Apollinaire in there too, the positional relationship of words just as important as the relationships of meaning. The book's already provided an opera, Irma (a version of which was released on Eno's Obscure label a few years ago), and, according to the author, includes music scores, parodies, notes on aesthetics, autobiography, concrete texts....
And more besides: A Humument is part poetry, part visual arts, part archaeology, part philosophy, and part psychoanalytical novel, in that Phillips has unearthed a great many erotic nuances only unconsciously present in Mallock's original. It's a highly effective deconstruction job, a painstaking structural dismemberment of an archaic text. And a lot of fun, too. (And a lot of old-fashioned dough, too. - Recession Ed.)