Fermynwoods Friday 46 – A Humument

For this week’s Fermynwoods Friday, artist Sophie Cullinan remembers and re-presents her original re-presentation of Tom Phillips’ A Humument. Confused? Then read on…

In 2013, Fermynwoods Contemporary Art commissioned me to present text-based work, to be displayed from June to October on the scrolling LED sign in the window of 33 High Street, Thrapston. My commission comprised of a double re-presentation of pages from Tom Phillips’ iconic work ‘A Humument’. [Phillips drew, painted, and collaged over the pages of a second hand copy of the obscure Victorian novel, A Human Document by W.H. Mallock, leaving just some of the original text to show through, creating nonlinear narratives.]

A Humument p125

The following sing I a book. a book
of art of mind art and that which he
hid reveal I


searching for the completely
extreme picture he had lately done
enumerated horseflesh; and water
billiards. English Art.


O art sing the wild choice of mind


I had long been a fan of Phillips’ work, having been introduced to it whilst at art college in the early 90s, and was interested in finding a way to reprocess and unearth a further translation from the intriguingly nonsensical text. I liked the idea that the words could travel out of the book, be processed through signage (twice) and then be returned to a new, different book form.

With Tom Phillips’ blessing, the help of a user of British Sign Language (BSL) and a sign language interpreter, fourteen pages from A Humument were translated into BSL, filmed, and the resulting frames returned to paper in the form of a collection of small individual flipbooks, numbered 1-14. Each book was painstakingly handmade and published to accompany the original text, now shown on the scrolling LED sign.

Public reactions were interesting. Without knowing the context of the work, passers-by found the flickering LED texts delightfully baffling, and as few were conversant with BSL, they sought explanation in the accompanying books but found little comfort or clarity to their problems of translation. Could it be, they wondered, that secret wisdoms were ticking incomprehensibly before their eyes? Or had we just found a strange new way to advertise kebabs in Thrapston? I was delighted that no one knew, but were curious enough to enquire. I hoped that within this confusion, the new books had retained the spirit of the original A Humument, and would initiate new and individual meanings in the minds of the readers.

Sophie Cullinan

A Humument - Sophie Cullinan

Look out for more Fermynwoods Friday posts each week looking back on some of our favourite projects over the past 20 years of Fermynwoods Contemporary Art. You may also enjoy Fermynwoods Friday #9 – Broken City Lab, another text based work shown on the LED sign in the window of 33 High Street, Thrapston.