Studio International

Published 10/06/2017

Tom Phillips: ‘I’m still reading books. Nothing changes and everything changes’

Tom Phillips talks about his love of words, the human drive to make marks and the more spiritual side of his work


Tom Phillips has just turned 80 and, to mark this milestone, Flowers Gallery in London has put on, not so much a retrospective, as a survey of his lesser-known works. This collection of witty and playful pieces is testament to Phillips’s intellect and his talent as a storyteller. It includes a cage constructed from words, Wittgenstein’s Cage (2009), a visual representation of the eponymous philosopher’s theory that the limits of our world are set by the limits of our language. William Shakespeare and Samuel Beckett also feature. Phillips has constructed a library of book titles, all of which can be found in Hamlet and the pertinent words from Beckett’s play The Unnamable, “I can’t go on, I’ll go on” are stencilled on to artist palettes.

Phillips is perhaps best known for A Humument, a work that has emerged over the past 50 years from a forgotten Victorian novel he picked up for a few pennies in Peckham Rye in south-east London. Every page of this book has been played with, coloured in and illustrated, with only a selection of words left legible. In doing this, Phillips has teased out a new story, an epic poem of sorts, from the original text. This chance acquisition was perhaps the most productive in a long career of collecting (hoarding is perhaps a more accurate term), old books, postcards, soil and even his own hair.

Studio International went to Flowers Gallery in London to talk to Phillips about his love of words, the human drive to make marks and the more spiritual side of his work.

Tom Phillips: Connected Works
Flowers Gallery, Kingsland Road, London
26 May – 1 July 2017

Irma, an opera by Tom Phillips, is at South London Gallery, 16 and 17 September 2017.

Interview by EMILY SPICER