British artist Tom Phillips has found inspiration in alteration, and the result of that constitutes a long term project from which he still makes discoveries.

Phillips has spent the last four decades working and reworking the Victorian novel A Human Document, by W.H. Mallock, into a series of collages that comprise A Humument, which will be displayed as part of the show “Life’s Work,” opening at Mass MoCA on Saturday, March 23.

The project began in November, 1966, when Phillips and a friend were rummaging through bargain bins of old books and Phillips bragged that he would take the first book he found for threepence — three pennies — and use it for a long term art project. The honor went to Mallock’s book, this the ninth edition from 1892.

Forty years later, the entire book has been reworked into five different version, including a digital one, with over 1,000 pages all compiled.

Born of chance, Phillips says such randomness has continued to play a role in the development of the art, often without him prompting its involvement.

“In the first version, I worked on the pages in random order and now am doing so again,” he said. “This time is the work’s last chance saloon, so to speak, and I get through the pages picking here and there. As I find new things to make them do I narrow the field inch by inch and towards the end I am left with less and less choice. I will finish up with only one unpredictable page to do. I don’t have to invite chance any more. It is inviting itself.”

Phillips hasn’t attempted to know too much about Mallock himself, and has only done some cursory investigation for his half of the collaboration across eras.

“I haven’t learned much about Mallock in recent years,” Phillips said, “nor have I made much effort in that direction except on occasional visits to Wincanton looking for his grave, an element I would like to feature in A Humument.”

Last year, Phillips did come across a 1907 photo of Mallock that he describes as “terrifying” and used in the latest edition of the work.

“He looks like an embittered and irascible old man,” said Phillips. “What his appearance was at his death in 1926, I shudder to think.”

Mallock hasn’t been his only writerly collaborator, and not even his only unintentional one, as with poet Humbert Wolfe’s books

“I have poked at pages here and there and collaborated with poets and others in books published, in one side and out the other,” Phillips said, “but the process was different with poetry, tending to paraphrase rather than transform and, largely, too easy.”

Last year, Phillips was asked to work on a page of the King James Bible for Professor Yvonne Sherwood’s book, “Biblical Blasphemy,” released this year, and found it a challenge to his method.

“I looked at the Old Testament and found it already so outrageous, where it was not magnificently poetic, that it defied or preempted treatment,” he said.

In the end, a page from A Humument was used for the cover of the book.

Phillips has recently brought A Humument into the digital era with an iPad app version that he sees not as a replacement of the original at all, as well as a DVD.

“The medium of the book is of course still paramount and all other media point back to it rather than away from it,” Phillips said. “The DVD consists of myself reading the page as it appears on screen, a selection of around a hundred pages from the revised edition. It’s all recorded at the same kitchen table where I have been making the book itself for so many years.”

With the digital editions behind him, Phillips feels that his intentions in pursuing this work becomes more clear to the viewer, with the digital presentations making the work less obscure to some who encounter it, but also helping to draw connections from the Humument to his many other works.

“I hope this will clarify for some people how I think the poetry of the piece works, though alternative readings are possible,” he said. “It goes some way towards helping the reader know what I am up to, or what I think I am up to.”

“I want the book to reflect these things brought in from other work and to show perhaps that my practice in art is, at least to me, one unified field.”

Originally published in the North Adams Transcript on April 1, 2013.

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