It’s not often that a forgotten trifle of fiction gets new life as visual art and poetry, which is why we were stopped in our tracks by Tom Phillips’s A Humument, part of the Life’s Work exhibition now on display at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art (MASS MoCA). A gloriously irreverent combination of painting, collage, illustration, and clever wordsmithing, A Humument is not only a wild bit of eye candy, but an unbelievable story within a story within a story.
In 1966, Tom Phillips—a British Renaissance man primarily known as a composer, illustrator, and painter (he’s created portraits of everyone from playwright Samuel Beckett to the Monty Python gang)—set off to a second-hand store to find a used book for a dime that he could use in a serial artwork. He happened upon H. R. Mallock’s A Human Document, a Victorian novel that had been popular enough for nine printings back in its heyday, but had since fallen into utter obscurity. After altering all 367 pages by painting, collage, cut-up techniques, and other methods, Phillips had created an entirely new artwork. The first edition of A Humument (the title is a mash-up of Mallock’s original) was exhibited in 1973 and published in book form in 1980. It’s since undergone five partial revisions—more than a thousand pages—and has become a classic of postmodern art, but Phillips has said it will only be complete when all of the pages of his original work have been revised. We kid you not.
There’s a lot to love about A Humument. For us, the mastery of color and form, the bold graphics, and the alternately laugh-out-loud funny and haunting prose poetry made a lasting impression. We were also taken with the sheer scope of the project, and Phillips’s ability to transform a dry, classist, even racially prejudiced novel into an entirely new art form. On his website, Phillips says, “These aspects of [Mallock’s] literary persona assist rather than impede my efforts, as do his intelligence, immaculate prose and, most of all, his luxuriant vocabulary and wide range of allusion. In a way his complete lack of humour is also a help, for it is a pleasure to tease the odd joke out of a novel which contains almost none. Whenever I have a problem of providing a text for some artistic purpose, be it grave or trivial, I turn to Mallock first: he has never let me down.”
Don’t let yourself down by missing out on this innovative artwork. If you’re in the Berkshire area, view it in person at MASS MoCA between now and the end of January 2014. Or pick up a printed copy here, or download the iPad app.