At around noon on 5 November 1966, the artists Tom Phillips and RB Kitaj were hunting for bargains at Austin’s Furniture Repository on Peckham Rye in London when Phillips made a casual boast to his friend. The next book he picked up that cost threepence, he said, he would make the focus of a serious, long-term art project. The first volume to fit the bill turned out to be A Human Document, a novel written by one WH Mallock in 1892, and at that moment the fates of the long-forgotten Victorian author and the adventurous and experimental young artist became inextricably entwined.
Although it was evidently very popular in its day, having run to nine editions in the year of its release, the anti-semitic attitudes underpinning A Human Document are abhorrent by today’s standards (and, indeed, by the standards of the 1960s), particularly concerning the adultery of the book’s heroine, Irma, which is presented as acceptable on the grounds that her wealthy husband is Jewish, and therefore presumably deserves what’s coming to him. This unpleasantness didn’t get in the way of Phillips’s project, however, because he was planning to turn Mallock’s source text into something else entirely. Line by line, sometimes using paint, sometimes using ink, he obliterated the majority of the original story, leaving only a handful of words legible on each page, and these he carefully linked together using cartoon-like white speech bubbles to create strange, poetic new meanings. He then turned the space around these newly “found” texts into a dazzling sequence of artworks – works which often refer back to the texts in some way. Gradually, as he worked, a very different story emerged, obliquely and non-sequentially told, of a man called toge (who pops up every time the word “together” appears in the original text) and his misadventures in love and in the art world.
This “treated” book – retitled A Humument – was first published in 1973, and since then Phillips has been busily revising it until now, finally, he has arrived at what he says is the definitive edition. The effect on the first-time reader (I had only previously seen a couple of pages under glass in the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art) is dazzling, verging on overwhelming. Phillips studied English and Anglo-Saxon at Oxford before going to Camberwell School of Arts, so his remixes of Mallock’s text contain clever echoes and half-echoes of everything from the Aeneid (the first page begins “I sing a book of the art that was”) to Hamlet, ‘The Waste Land’, Ulysses and much more besides. And if that makes it sound dry and scholarly, it isn’t – toge’s adventures are also hilarious, sexy, smutty and occasionally very moving, as he stumbles uncertainly through various sloughs of despond towards artistic and personal fulfilment.
The Scottish poet Kate Tough doesn’t have quite the same modus operandi as Phillips – her poems are also mined from found texts but (mostly) presented in a conventional manner on the page. In spirit, though, she is very much his disciple, and it is easy to imagine the pair of them having a good chuckle over some of the double-entendres in her new pamphlet, tilt-shift. Particularly effective is the way she sometimes combines two very different texts. In “Horse Sense For Sphincters”, for example, she mashes up lines from Monty Robert’s Horse Sense for People and Ina May Gaskin’s Guide to Childbirth to amusing effect. The same technique can also be put to much more serious use, however, as in “People Make Glasgow”, in which she combines the city’s official slogan, adopted in 2013, with the folk hymn Amazing Grace to create a subtle-yet-powerful critique of the Second City of Empire’s slave-trading past. Tough’s first full-length collection, when it comes, will be one to watch out for.
*A Humument: A Treated Victorian Novel – Final Editon by Tom Phillips is published by Thames & Hudson, 381pp, £20. Tilt-shift by Kate Tough is published by Tapsalteerie, 26pp, £5