Jeremy Leslie explores what artist Tom Phillips taught him about chance
The idea of chance as a tool for creative guidance has intrigued me ever since I saw Cracked Actor, a 1974 BBC film about David Bowie. Stoned out of his head, sat in the back of a stretch limo winding round LA in the middle of his Thin White Duke phase, Bowie explained the influence of William Burroughs’ cutup technique on his lyrics for Diamond Dogs. The idea you could subjugate such decisions to chance was a sensational idea to a lazy teenager.
Later, I discovered more about Burroughs and his experiments with chance, and became fascinated at a more serious level. I was studying graphics and busy listening to Cabaret Voltaire, 23 Skidoo and other Dada/Burroughsorientated bands; I saw Burroughs read live during his final UK visit (tiny man, gigantic voice) and later my final year dissertation was based on the practice and application of chance.
One weekend, I found myself at the second-hand market under Waterloo Bridge, wasting time looking through boxes of old books. Most were nonsense, but chance played its hand and revealed a survey of the British artist Tom Phillips. I was mesmerised by the pointillist union flag on the cover, and I still have the book – Works. Texts: to 1974 – its laminate now slowly peeling off the cover.
I don’t remember what I paid, but it was a lot for me at the time and worth every penny. It introduced in project-by-project detail an artist using chance as a tool to create art as engaging and beautiful as the systems and techniques that underpinned it. In one project, 20 Sites n Years, Phillips selected locations along a radial line drawn half a mile from his Camberwell home, and photographed them annually, a schema based on chance that developed into a unique social record of the gradual, mundane shifts in suburban London life.
Phillips best-known work is based on a Victorian novel called A Human Document (selected at random in a second-hand bookshop). Page by page, his interventions saw it reworked as A Humament. This contraction of the original title gives a clue to the content: the text of every page is reduced to a few words picked out to form new sentences, meanings and ultimately a story, while the deleted text is buried under painted decoration. Each and every page is effectively its own work of art.
Phillips has been a hugely prolific artist – he’s now 80 – but the single painting I always return to is Benches. It consists of enlarged versions of eight postcards of park benches from around Britain. Similarly to in 20 Sites n Years, he includes two images of the same spot, including the same bench from Battersea Park – a space my grandmother would take me to as a child. The first bench is fully occupied, the second empty, a hint at the theme of mortality. The stripes that surround the postcard images were assigned colours based on the postcards, while their width was determined by a chance process of coin spins.
After discovering Benches in the book, I saw it at Tate Britain and have since made sure I have a postcard of it in every office and studio I’ve worked from. It’s a poor reproduction at that scale, but the postcard seems the right format for it.
Benches, from Tom Phillips’ book (below), subtly hints at mortality.