Computer Arts - - Contents - Jeremy Les­lie, founder and cre­ative di­rec­tor of magCul­ture, has over 30 years of ex­pe­ri­ence mak­ing mag­a­zines. He ex­plores what artist Tom Phillips taught him about chance.

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.

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