16 May 02004

Learning from Tom Phillips: We are the people

Sample postcard from We Are The People exhibition - click to enlargeFrom abstract theorising about cultural collections to concrete practice. Tom Phillips currently has 1,000 (out of his collection of 50,000) postcards on display at the National Portrait Gallery, as part of an exhibition called We Are The People.

Alongside the exhibition, Phillips guides how people can interpret and learn from the collection. There is a book with essays by himself and others, as well as shorter articles and an audio interview on his web site. The web resources also help put the exhibition in the context of Phillips' long-term artistic engagement with postcards.

This is not just a case of an artist switching hats to become a part-time archivist and interpreter. The collection and exhibition are also about collecting and interpreting, for much of Phillips' work is concerned with layers of meaning and the chance connections that occur when you pile one layer on top of another, endlessly. Playful means lead him to serious ends and vice-versa.

When I say that We Are The People is partly about collecting and interpreting, there may be a whiff in this statement of arch, too-clever-by-half, postmodern tactics that put everything in ironic quotation marks. But it's hard to level such an accusation at Tom Phillips: his work has an irrefutable substance that makes it stand in its own right. So, when he translates and illustrates Dante's Inferno, you can speculate about intent as much as you like, but you can't argue with the quiddity of the book. And We Are The People presents 1,000 postcards organised in 36 categories. That's what the exhibition is, and it demands to be met on these terms. (I know this seems to be stating the obvious, but bear with me.)

The essays that frame We Are The People honour the serious business of making sense of the collection. James Fenton praises the impulse to collect, arguing that the significance of an artefact is brought out by its correct placing in context. Elizabeth Edwards provides an analytical study of the presentation of self in portraiture (in which postmodernist favourite Roland Barthes only warrants a footnote). Phillips himself is concerned with providing a counterweight to the National Portrait Gallery's institutional bias towards "big cheeses and high achievers" and professional portrait painters: his Evening Standard article talks of "democratisation of portraiture" and "defining images of real presences portrayed in vernacular stylelessness." Elsewhere he writes that We Are The People "has the ambition of being a visual epic of trivial fond record."

But Phillips is also a very epistemologically savvy artist. He revels in the multiple paths that people can take through this collection of images. He has imposed his own categorisation, but he doesn't take it too seriously: his first category comprises 19 postcards connected by their common inclusion of aspidistra plants alongside their subjects.

Phillips takes literally the adage coined by one his 1960s art school students, Brian Eno, that an artist is now a curator. "An artist is now much more seen as a connector of things, a person who scans the enormous field of possible places for artistic attention, and says, What I am going to do is draw your attention to this sequence of things...the curator, the editor, the compiler, and the anthologist have become such big figures. They are all people whose job it is to digest things, and to connect them together," said Eno.

Tom Phillips' collection, book and web resources all work to make and digest connections. With self-mocking tongue in cheek, he refers to his work as a combination of the "psychopathology of collecting" and the "delightful drudgery of sorting." In the midst of his Introduction to the We Are The People book, Phillips draws comparisons between his collection and Walter Benjamin's Arcades project and Wittgenstein's Tractatus Logico-Philosphicus. He straightaway shows a very English embarrassment with these allusions — "I shall soon escape from this paragraph which begins to be dangerously vainglorious" — but nevertheless persists that "the ludic spirit that lurks behind [Wittgenstein's and Benjamin's] high seriousness would have led them on their own eccentric and illuminating paths through [this] material." Later he admits to a moment of "Borgesian bafflement" when he realises that a postcard of a nurse is actually someone in fancy dress and wonders if "all these butchers, postmen, sailors and headmistresses were players in a huge carnival of scrambled identities."

I think that when people speak of the connection between games and learning in the 21st Century, they'd be better advised to focus on Phillips' playful approach to meaning making — as evidenced in We Are The People — than to ditzy hybrids of learning resources and video games.

Posted by David Jennings in section(s) Cultural Calendar, Curatorial, E-learning, Ideas and Essays, Reviews on 16 May 02004 | TrackBack

I bought the catalough while in York. amazing collecton. wish I'd gone down & seen it.

Posted by: Rik on 7 May 02010 at 12:35 AM
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