Tom Phillips – 20 Sites n Years

Interview: Johnny Crisp

All images are (c) Tom Phillips, Courtesy of Flowers Gallery London and New York

In 1973, the artist Tom Phillips (CBE RA) pulled out a map of his local area of Camberwell (in South London), and drew a small circle around his house, making sure to include his studio. More or less at random, he then divided it up into 20, and made a vow: every spring, he would make the same nine-mile circuit, taking a photograph of the same places from the same 20 spots (marked by little blue crosses).

The project, 20 Sites n Years, has inspired countless copycats in the four decades since it began (possibly among them Harvey Keitel in Paul Auster and Wayne Wang’s Smoke (1995)). Considering all the photos together is an absorbing and curious experience: these places could not be more unassuming, but as the years pass the slightest change in detail becomes worthy of the most minute consideration. It is as much a portrait of a place as it is of the passing of time itself, and the result is strangely joyous – a celebration of whatever is to happen, and of whatever has happened. As Phillips said: “In fact, one is photographing the future, in a sense.”

Tom Phillips took time out of his 80th birthday to talk to PERDIZ about the merits of perseverance, acceptance, and always keeping faith in the possibility of something happy coming along.

Tom Phillips, 20 Sites n Years, 01, 102 Grove Park. c. 10.20 am. The Central point, 1973 – 1987 – 2015

What originally inspired you to start the project?
Well around the 70s when I started it there was a lot of people doing Earth art and Land art, but they didn’t seem to do it for very long. I thought: ‘What if you concentrated on one really boring place,’ – which is round where I live – ‘and didn’t say that there was going to be an end to it?’ And in fact there isn’t an end to it, I’ve been doing it since 1973 and others will be continuing it – I hope – when I’m gone.

Did you imagine you would still be doing it in 2017, when you started?
I didn’t think I’d live this long! I used to do it in one go walking around. I can’t do that anymore; I have to do it in little bits, but I still do it! 

Tom Phillips, 20 Sites n Years, 07, Frencheés (‘The Can Can Boutique’) c. 12.15 pm. 1973 – 1987 – 2015

How did you choose the places?
I chose them at random really. I drew this little circle around my studio and then divided it into 20. Making all the wrong choices of course, because much more interesting things happened in other places, but that’s part of the game. 

Did your relationship to those places change?
Sure! They’re pretty dull places, most of them, but that’s alright. You never know whether in 100 years time whether they won’t be a rocket launch site, or a scene of catastrophe in a war that is yet to happen, or a place where something really happy is happening! It’s important to know that each place could be the beginning of a lovely part of the world and a beautiful part of time, since we live in rough times at the moment.

How meticulous have you been in keeping to the time of day and the exact spot?
I’ve been pretty rigorous. It doesn’t always work out. If it’s pissing with rain I might change the time a bit. Cameras break down, sometimes I break down. It goes by what happens in the first instance. It doesn’t always work out. Nothing always works out, that’s the nice thing about it. It very much changes in what you see. People change and cars change. Change occurs in other ways than just the sites themselves. Now people walk around talking to each other in little instruments with things in their ears with amazing regularity. Cars haven’t changed quite as much as I would have expected, but they do… In 20 years time, 50 years time, there may be no need for cars.

Tom Phillips, 20 Sites n Years, 13, The Urinal. c. 3.30pm 1973 – 2002 – 2016

Is it an optimistic project?
It’s optimistic in that it’s about love. It’s about loving a place and being prepared to accept it. It’s the world of acceptance. That’s how it is, that’s what I record; I try not to interfere in any way. So it’s like I’m married to these places. I have to get used to them however they turn out. Sometimes they reward one richly.

Was there any particular message you wanted to communicate?
I don’t aim at communication. I aim at doing the thing and seeing how it moves on. As you say, lots of people seem to have taken it up so now it communicates itself in that way. Theirs might be much more interesting than mine. But they can’t start it in 1973. I wish I’d started it in 1937 instead which would have been very interesting – through the war. But you can’t have everything, that’s one of the things it’s about. It might catch up with another war, or nothing at all. I don’t know. People might be dancing in the streets on that very day with joy about some amazing occurrence. But I don’t know anything about it yet. In fact one is photographing the future in a sense. Rather than the past. It’s a strange paradox.

If you could go back to 1973 – would you change anything?
That’s a story of regret. Sometimes wish I’d made other decisions about the places. But I can’t look that far into the future, so probably I made the right decisions, you might say in the end. My son is due to take it over. He’s well trained in it.

Tom Phillips, 20 Sites n Years, 20, Envoi. The Camberwell Beauty. c. 1973 – 1987 – 2016

You can see the whole of the 20 Sites n Years (so far) here.

The exhibition Tom Phillips: Connected Works is on view at Flowers Gallery, London E2 until 1 July.

Irma: An Opera by Tom Phillips is at South London Gallery, London on 16 and 17 September.


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