The Royal Academician Tom Phillips, who is 73 and based in London, is a traditional painter and draughtsman, best known for his portrait commissions. But his artistic activities are nothing if not eclectic. An expert on African art, he curated a 1995 show at the Royal Academy and recently published the first book on Ghanaian gold weights. He has composed chamber music and two operas, publishing his music on Brian Eno’s Obscure Records label (Eno, his onetime student, is now his lifelong friend).
Phillips also happens to be an avid collector of postcards. Why not add, hell, that he is also a cricketer and a lamppost designer. He even dabbles in mass television, having co-directed A TV Dante -- truly radical television -- with Peter Greenaway for Channel 4.
But Phillips is most celebrated in contemporary art circles for A Humument, a perpetual work-in-progress that dates back to 1966. In that year, during the cultural and artistic revolutions of the day, the 29-year-old Phillips set himself a task: to find a secondhand book for three pence and alter every page with painting, drawing, collage and various cutting techniques in order to produce an entirely transformed work of art. In a handy junk shop he found what he was looking for: W.H. Mallock’s A Human Document, a rather salacious 19th-century novel published in 1892 and now more or less forgotten.
Young Phillips titled his altered book A Humument, and published the first version of all 367 treated pages in 1973. From then on, Phillips purchased every copy of the original novel that he came across, and continued working on the transformation of its pages. Three revised editions have been published since.
A Humument, then, is a work that has surely anticipated, if not invented, the fluid, mutating, visual culture of today. No surprise, then, that this fall the book entered cyberspace, taking the form of an iPhone "app" -- A Humument App -- that is now available from iTunes app store for the one-time-only price of £4.99.
With the technical assistance of John Bowring, Phillips was able to devise a perfect digital version of A Humument. The original 367 full-color pages have been minutely scanned, enabling the user to zoom in and view details at an enhanced resolution, while a "find wheel" spins through the book and presents visual thumbnails, so it is easy to navigate quickly to favorite pages.
The app includes 39 completely new pages, and an entirely novel interactive feature called The Oracle. Using any date and a randomly generated number, The Oracle will select two pages to be read in tandem. "As with the I Ching," Phillips notes, "chance pairs of pages, taken together and interpreted, can offer direction, encouragement or warning. Amusement may be found in the game, but watch out for the uncanny prophecy."
ADRIAN DANNATT is a Paris-based critic and writer.