Strong misreadings: Tom Phillips at Flowers Gallery

Pages from a Humument-Install2

Installation view of “Pages from a Humument” at Flowers Gallery

A row of one hundred unadorned pages from an old book entitled “A Human Document.” Below, a row of pages similarly numbered but with words inked out or colored over to tell a new story with old words. Beneath those two rows, another row of the exact same pages but manipulated with drawings, collages, and a different selection of words. On view at Flowers Gallery, the exhibition “Pages from A Humument” offers the viewer both the starting point of this body of work and its reinvention twice over. British artist Tom Phillips took the Victorian novel “A Human Document” as the basis for an alternate narrative first exhibited in 1973 (the middle row). He returned to the original pages for another alternate reading, debuting in 2012 (the bottom row). Different strings of words are selected each time. Following the thread of them down the page the viewer finds poetry rather than straightforward narrative. This kind of strong misreading does not suggest an anxiety of influence, but rather a decided optimism about the depths to which a text can be mined for meaning: the birth of a reader.


Recently I wrote about works by Robert Seydel that are similarly text-based. Seydel used old pages from albums and books as fodder for an inventive merging of text and image bound together by a loose fictional persona as narrator. Here in Phillips work, no clear authorial hand, even fictional, appears. There are recurrent concerns about art–also seen in Seydel’s work–and certain words such as “toge” seem to have specific meaning, cropping up again again across unrelated pages. Unfortunately, unlike the show of Seydel’s work, Phillips’ pages on view at Flowers are primarily high-quality photocopies, losing some of the intimacy and surface interest that the hand-inked pages would have.


“A Humument,” which combines “human” and “document” from the original book’s title, suggests other trains of thought; the artist said in a recent interview:

There are little echoes within. It’s a funny little word. Human and humument and exhumed, earth humus, and all that. That pleases me because it’s not fixed.

Monument also comes to mind, as working and reworking the pages has become the artist’s life work, something he has returned to time and time again since his initial selection of the book in 1966 and now, at age 78, continues to develop.

Installation view of Pages from a Humument at Flowers Gallery

Installation view of “Pages from a Humument” at Flowers Gallery

The birth of the reader, ala Barthes, suggest the need for a strong, able reader. Phillips waxes poetic and facile, but remains fragmentary, at least as far as I could tell. His suggestions for a new narrative might be pithy, funny, or romantic, but they never build to more in narrative. However, as a testament to the capacity for human invention and some beautiful colored small drawings, they are well-worth a look. “Pages from A Humument” is up for one more week, through August 29th, at Flowers Gallery in Chelsea.

Art and War: “Art is a most uncertain instrument”


“But there is hope that man may change, for two factors work on him that might disinfect him. One is art. These days have given us the chance to test the artistic process, and judge whether it is a tool that does honest work or whether is simply makes toys for the childish. […]

What is art? It is not decoration. It is the re-living of experience. The artist says ‘I will make that event happen again, altering its shape, which was disfigured by its contacts with other events, so that its true significance is revealed’; and his audiences says, ‘We will let that event happen again by looking at this man’s picture or house, listening to his music or reading his book.’ It must not be copied, it must be remembered, it must be lived again, passing through those parts of the mind which are actively engaged in life, which bleed when they are wounded and give forth the bland emulsions of joy, while at the same time it is being examined by those parts of the mind which stand apart from life. At the end of this process the roots of experience are traced; the alchemy by which they make a flower of joy or pain is, so far as is possible to our brutishness, detected. What is understood is mastered. If art could investigate all experiences then man would understand the whole of life, and could control his destiny. […]

But such deliverance will not come soon, for art is a most uncertain instrument.”

Rebecca West, writing in 1941 in the face of a next war [World War II] which bode to be more terrible than the last, in the Epilogue of her travelogue and history of the Balkans, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. (Plus a lively Interview with The Paris Review)

Nato Thompson of Creative Time brings a discussion of arts and the military into the present day with a look at the Iraq War and Counterinsurgency Field Manual 3-24. This new article for e-flux compares the tactics of General Petraeus now dominant to counter-insurgency efforts with community-based art, resulting in a strange meld of points-of-view.

A Bookish Day: from Incunabila to Explanatory and Expirimental


Books. Returning home has been book-oriented, from going back to school and using its library to cleaning out my parent’s library at home. I found The Worry Book dusty and forgotten in my parent’s library, and brought it along with me today to share the still-charming 1960s text that classifies basic and “baroque” worries to a friend who would appreciate it.


Then I sat in on my friend’s class in the Hargrett Library, where the University of Georgia’s special collections are housed. There a librarian showed the group  incunabula, book’s from printing cradle of the 15th century, moving chronologically forward to a gorgeous artist’s book published in 1990, Capriccio. Capriccio hearkens back to the hand-made quality of manuscripts but with modern content: poems by Ted Hughes and engravings by Leonard Baskin, all done with an eye to beauty and craftsmanship that transforms the book as conveyor of information to art object, in this 41st of 50 total copies.


I am very much a digital native and minimalist in terms of possession. But despite, or perhaps because of that, I feel such a draw to these books-as-objects and the supposed permanence of the object, as opposed to the fleeting, unfixed nature of the web. This ambivalence splits many a modern mind, which has a desire of moving both backward and forward at the same time. (There is probably room for much BAROQUE Worry about the future of publishing in this.)


However, I ended my day at a lecture by Mark Callahan of UGA’s ICE Conversation Series on Experiments in Publishing, dealing both with a range of contemporary efforts and Mark’s own conception of publishing as a vehicle for the next iteration of his AUX series. Neither basic or baroque worry came up at this talk. Rather, there was playful enthusiasm toward the new possibilities and understandings of how one can publish. Predictably, this centrally involved the internet as a medium of exchange, and self-publishing options, be it Pinterest or Twitter (although the example tended to be more interesting than that). But they also expanded the notion of what a publication could be – an event, a mixture of media, to a participatory creation. At any rate, the written word no longer need have the main role it once did.


During the talk, I had an AHA moment when I saw an artist’s project very similar to one that I brainstormed with friends late one night this past weekend: the blank book. We were going to call ours: The Storehouse of Useless Knowledge. This artist has produced a high- and low-end edition of a white book based on Lulu’s material limitations of price and size. Now I will have the “baroque” worry of not saying my good ideas aloud, because they might take material form elsewhere. For more baroque worries, keep scrolling down.




As a coda, in thinking of awesome bookish artistic projects, I recently came across Christina HartlPraeger’s Book of Meme which works as a book-as-object, functioning in a sculptural way as Tauba Auerbach’s RGB Colorspace Atlas does.