Tom Phillips - Remembrance at 20 Years

Remembrance at 20 Years


Without fanfare and on a rainy June 1st this year (1992) I made the twentieth annual circuit of the twenty sites.  For the last ten years or so I have been accompanied by my son, Leo Phillips (who was only eight when the project began).  Little in life has given me more pleasure than the fact of his commitment to 20 Sites and the prospect that he will carry on with it when I conk out: his contribution has already enriched it with new eyes, thereby influencing the work while remaining faithful to its spirit and its rules.

Of all my work this humdrum epic is the one that affords me most delight.  Since it has its own momentum and has moved out of even my temporary control (for I am now merely its provisional functionary) I can say how beautiful and moving I find it, and how I feel it transcends the sum of its intriguing parts.  With what wit I discover it combines the quotidian with the mystical in an unlooked for alchemy of chance!  I serve it gladly: it is a masterpiece that consists entirely of its own conservation: neglect it and it dies, or becomes at most a fragment, the foot of an abandoned colossus.

Although I say all this with relish I say it with surprise, for I originally thought of the work as a 'sleeper' that I would have to drudge on with for at least a quarter of a century before its potential emerged and it might begin to have a real arch of character.  As early as the third year, however, it began to acquire its own identity and began also to subvert my initial imagining: it quickly came to be just as much about people and atmosphere as about locations and structures.  Planned as merely a chronicle of change in the look of things (as implied in the original instructions) it became more and more comprehensive as the random people and vehicles, in addition to nature's waywardness, made the sites eloquent.  Supplementary rules (often unwritten) developed to cope with new criteria (alignments, relative positions of people and vehicles and nature of same, hidden continuities etc.) to the point that the project can only be passed on by some kind of initiatory apprenticeship: with it now goes also its own history of tradition and anecdote.  These claims may seem grandiose.  I seldom have recourse to the word 'mystical' which I have used above, but, taking it to mean that there are aspects that are not inherent in a rational description of the work, and that make it weave unlooked for patterns, it is for once appropriate: 20 Sites is, in the old sense, a Mystery.

Within six years (and some private showings at 102 Grove Park it seemed worth airing in public.  As a slide show with commentary it has become a regular event at the Tate Gallery.  As the number of slides increases the commentary becomes, perforce, more general.  Whereas the replacement of this chimney, or the late blossoming of that particular tree, were dwelt on in early years, this kind of detail now get subsumed in a more overall view of each site with occasional highlights worthy of special remark.  The lecture-version still lasts an hour but at the most recent full showing at the Tate Gallery in 1990 there were 360 slides.

The passing show of the world and its ephemeral excitements pervade the piece as it reflects general elections, a Pope's visit, the dustmen's strike, the Jubilee; as well as the vagaries of our climate, the movements of fashion and car-styling and the gradual withering away of familiar points of reference in a suburban landscape (such as the urinal, the telephone box and the cinema).  One of the things I have particularly noticed is that change is most likely to happen where change is pointless and creates no advantage (though history will often reassert itself; cf Site 17).  Trivial alterations appear and are in their turn altered, as if there are spots in suburbia where the world feels an itch and needs to scratch itself.

Althought the sites were chosen in rather a vague and hurried way within a mere skeleton of a system, there seems to have been some serendipity in their begetting.  To take for example the urinal chosen as Site 13: - I seem to remember that the reason I chose it was as a memorial to a famous photograph of Degas coming out of a Paris pissoir: perhaps I thought my timing might coincide with a call of nature visited upon a Beckett or a Boycott.  The days of urinals (I should have guessed) were already numbered, even in 1973, though I have not remarked a corresponding falling off in my need to use them.  However, as well as the Gentlemen's Convenience, this site includes the entrance to the council's salvage depot, the nerve centre of our rubbish collection, to which converge and from which disperse all the dustmen (or, as they are called in Newspeak, Waste Disposal Operatives) their charts and vehicles.  I take this photo around 3.30 pm, an unexceptional and torpid time of day; yet, from the very first occasion, there has been danger in the air.  Two men at whom I had pointed my lens as they came out of the depot immediately crossed the road and threatened to smash the camera up (and me as well, as an afterthought).  I hurriedly explained that this was just a project on local architecture.  The milder of the two men cooled things down by telling the other that I was obviously not 'one of them'.  I felt rather shakey but got on with my photos.  I had a year in any case to ponder whether I was one of them or not.  Not, as it turned out, for in a similar scene the following year, after I had explained that I was a local historian recording the area's last surviving urinal, one of a pair almost as threatening told me that I was 'asking for trouble' taking photos at that particular time in that place since those leaving at that hour were workers sloping off early.  I would naturally be taken for a council spy ('even though you don't look like a nark' he graciously added).  Since the first 1973 photo also showed a prone housepainter taking an indefinite tea-break, the site could be subtitled A Nation at Work.  Nonetheless I continued to dice with death in subsequent years (such is the artist's lot) although the atmosphere of threat continued.  In 1982 the Nation was at war, a fact that was not seemingly going to leave its mark on 20 Sites: however Site 13 did not let me down on the aggression front, for, as Leo and I made a final check on feet-position etc., an armoured car appeared in the distance to pass right by the ex-urinal (it had become a wall) as I took the photograph.  As if the peacable art-operatives hadn't had enough thrills and spills at this location we were, in 1984, approached by a policeman (was it perhaps, I thought, a breach of security to document a waste depot in broad daylight?) who asked us if we had been there a quarter of an hour ago and seen, or, even better, photographed, a man coming out of the office-building carrying a till.  In one sense I regretted (and not for good-citizen reasons) that we'd missed the spectacle ... 20 Sites shown in a court of law!  The first criminal to be convicted by virtue of his presence in a work of art!*

Not all the sites of course are as eventful as number 13 but each has developed its own personality and most have had their particular and appropriate moments.  How else was the only cinema on the circuit going to celebrate British Film Year in 1985 but by closing down? (Cf Site 19).  Indeed so long is the time span envisaged that all sites become random however specific their selection might have been at the outset.  In a hundred years time the whole area might become an airport, or Disneyland, or a post-nuclear desert; in a thousand years time it might become a rainforest, or be indistinguishable from the Sahara, or have reverted to the hilly hunting grounds where King Charles first saw the Camberwell Beauty, or some Phillips yet to come might be trying to find both marks and foothold on a glacier in the dark of noon as he/she/it attempts to manipulate the camera with a mutant's cloven hoof.

Another even more frightening scenario once occurred to me in the form of a short story whose basic premiss was that the project became slowly more and more famous, until the sites themselves were developing into tourist attractions.  In the appropriate season, as my great great grandson, let us call him Bill, is dutifully making his circuit, crowds swarm round him at each site as they do round famous golfers on the greens of Gleneagles.  Many of the shops and houses en route, especially those featured, have turned themselves into tourist boutiques and advertise tours (like Frenchee's Site Safari').  The police who are beginning to have difficulty controlling the crowds as the years go by, get together with the National Trust who deplore the vulgarisation and exploitation of what has come to be called Sitezeit.  By the time Bill's daughter Irma is taking the photos the zone has been declared an Area of Outstanding Federal Interest.  Local groups join in the spirit of the enterprise (Sitegeist) by dressing up in late 20th Century costume throughout the last week in May.  Now that the area is cordoned off, vintage buses and lovingly maintained Ford Fiestas are among the only kinds of vehicles allowed.  The Local Preservation Society funds itself out of more discreet kinds of commercialisation, like the fifty Euroyen they charge for use of the now faithfully reconstructed urinal.  Work at the SiteCenter Research Foundation, now occupying Site 6 in the aptly renamed Boulevard Dennis Noble, has been so thorough, and the grants it has given for period reconstruction so generous, that Irma's photographs in the Centennial Year of 2073 are identical to those taken a hundred years before ...

Whatever the outcome I shall of course not be there to see it.  Intimations of mortality have already made their appearance; the 1987 photos were taken with myself alternately hobbling about on a stick and being driven by Leo (as a result of an injury sustained early on in my remarkable innings at the Oval only two days before).  This was also the first year in which any of the photographs were taken by Leo, thereby increasing the impression for me that, at least as far as 20 Sites goes, this marked the beginning of my valetudinarian years.  The copyright passes to each photographer in turn for he or she is then the designated artist.

What is already clear even in the brief span of my collaboration with Leo is that the work will change with each new custodian.  This is as it should be, for change is the dynamism that will prevent sterility.  Tendencies in the slides may provoke new rules or traditions.  They will change it most, and most beneficially, who, like a good musician seeking to interpret a score with the greatest fidelity (the analogy is not haphazard), adhere most rigorously to the markings and instructions in the urtext, thereby producing what is called an 'unusual reading'.

If some good and godly friends are right and there is an afterlife, or if my daughter Ruth is right and I am due to be reincarnated as a house-sparrow or a footballer or a prima ballerina (she hasn't yet fully explained the system whereby one gets allotted one's next identity) then I know where I shall want to haunt (or fly or dribble or pirouette) each year.  Come late May I shall be missing from the choirs of angels or the stokers of hell fire.  Then as now I shall start at the turning of the year to look forward to the time of 20 Sites (I usually make a round of inspection in January to see how they are getting on) as one does to the next episode in a gripping serial.

Just as interesting as making the circuit itself is the absorbing ritual of sorting the slides, when a choice has to be made from the four or five photographs of each location: each choice and the arguments for and against this slide or that are what creates the evolving character of the project.

To those who would like to follow the progress of 20 Sites n Years I suggest they look out in the Tate Gallery Calendar around Autumn in an even numbered year, or ring them, or write to me.  Otherwise they may miss the latest biennial performance of this panoptic cliffhanger.

Hooray fugaces labuntur anni.

This was not our only brush with crime for the following year (at Site 6) a red car suddenly drew up on the other side of the road and two West Indian heavies were suddenly heading towards us.  Thinking that we'd photographed them (at best they would have been a red blur in the photo) they offered to buy the film and started counting off ten pound notes from a thick wad.  They had not reckoned with the fearless incorruptibility of the artist and his disdain of worldly wealth.  Somehow we squeezed out of the situation.