Published  14/10/2005

Seeking Paradise

Seeking Paradise

Ian Hamilton Finlay: Sentences
Inverleith House, Royal Botanical Gardens, Edinburgh
29 July-23 October 2005

When the artist, Ian Hamilton Finlay, first came to Stoneypath, in south-west Scotland in 1968, the buildings were ruinous and the moorland inhospitable. But he introduced a metaphorical classicism at an early stage, when the Temple of Apollo was created in one part of the existing buildings. More ominously for Finlay, in true classical tradition, in the late 1970s, as well as the gods, there were contemporary villains and warlords overhead. Firstly, the Scottish Arts Council withdrew their grant, which, in turn led to the local authority refusing rating mitigation. Finlay opposed these measures and the next result was an attempt by the then local authority to evict the artist and his work, already substantially in progress across the reclaimed moorland, and to close down his venture.

But they had calculated without knowing the degree of determination and conviction to his artistic and moral ethos that Finlay would display. The local authority resorted to pillage, removing a number of works irretrievably. In 1980, Finlay changed the name of 'Stoneypath' to a more appropriately belligerent and defensive title, 'Little Sparta', and became firmly embattled against adversity. Over the subsequent quarter-century, Little Sparta has survived intact. Finlay will have himself celebrated his 80th anniversary, and now, Little Sparta has become a charitable trust offering institutional security and certain cast-iron guarantees for the future survival of the garden. It has been a long saga,1 but now Finlay can tentatively breathe a sigh of relief. Little Sparta opens to the public on certain days to an increasingly appreciative body of admirers, drawn not only from Britain but also from across the world. A memorial plaque has been put up to celebrate the 1980 victory, on the approach to Little Sparta, commemorating all this, typically, with the words, 'Flute, begin with me, Arcadian notes' (adapted from Virgil, Eclogue VIII).

Now, over 20 years later, we find here this interaction of the Virgilian, the classical and, indeed, the challenge of defending one's principles, which as he widens further the gardens of this Arcadia, Finlay manages to extend repeatedly into a world of contemporary meaning. Throughout the garden, Finlay deliberately weaves together recent war imagery, the world of classical mythology, the picturesque, the lore and imagery of the sea, and also the core philosophy of ancient Greece. All this is achieved with a full intellectual depth of reflection (including a canny awareness of humanity's failings over three millennia). Latin text ennobles the incidental, as does old German Gothic text, to make more real the intimations of 20th-century conflicts that Finlay presents.

Finlay is fortunate that a Scottish hill stream running close to Little Sparta could, from early on, provide the source for waters coursing through the site; forming also a small 'lochan' and smaller pools; and he clearly intended that the sound of falling, running and stumbling water should form an audible background to the entire series of events created. In a relatively new extension of this Arcadia, a stretch of English park land is created, where three bridges provide final, metaphorical episodes, all embellished with Finlay's clear and beautiful typefaces. The words of the Greek philosopher Heraclitus, for instance, seem particularly appropriate on one such bridge, where two strong wooden planks carry the statement: 'That which joins and that which divides is one and the same'.

Metamorphosis is applied to the English park land, where land and sea images run together: the lawn is a velvet green carpet, but the introduction of five undulations allows five large stone blocks to be inserted. Each one carries the word for wave, in five different languages: 'Wave, vague, woge, onda, unda'. The land here now becomes the sea, or so it seems.

Overall, the gardens incorporate some five, widely varied sundials, but these are not set foolishly, simply to speculate on the mysteries of the cosmos. Rather, they provide, with smaller texts, an episodic endorsement of humanity. Beehives are also installed, three in number, but translated metaphorically into trading schooners, and once again, like such sailing vessels, each carries a name. Finlay has always been interested in the degree to which the pre-Socratic Greek philosophers viewed cosmology - and their findings, of course, are only now available to us in a fragmentary way, relying, therefore, upon paradox and metaphor.

The Temple of Apollo exhibits a more succinct narrative about the passage and 'arrival' of the gods and then of their passing. Other classical figures are made visible in the gardens, always infused with Finlay's sense of parody and wit. Apart from the classicism and the war imagery, there is also Finlay's observation of, and reliance upon, the history of the French Revolution. A favourite element here is the use of a quotation from Louis-Antoine de Saint-Just, who as a Jacobin and revolutionary was guillotined before his 27th birthday. Fittingly, a statement by Saint-Just is commemorated in a series of 11 large stone pavings, which are positioned on the ground in four rows, one word per row, and lie just above the lochan. Here, Finlay is characteristically encapsulating, on a major scale, the idea of conflict.

It is impossible to compare Little Sparta with its innumerable visual 'placements', episodes and events within a single article. The exhibitions in September 2005 in Edinburgh, overlapping with the Edinburgh Festival, to celebrate Finlay's 80th birthday, are on one level indicative of the belated appreciation Scotland gives to her greater artists, at least in their own lifetime. But on the other hand, they reveal just how readily transferable and communicable is Finlay's seemingly abstract or allegorical imagery in words and text, whether out of doors, or within neutral gallery space. The words, and their ideas, bring a resonance that evokes Finlay's particular wit, his wry but intelligent perception and his ability thus to convey meaning direct. Recently, in a Landscape compendium, published in 1999, the German commentator and landscape historian, Udo Weilacher, has, in a searching interview,2 drawn out hitherto Finlay's essence and skill at place-making. Most significantly, he asks Finlay about the Paradise image that most visitors seem to take away with them. The artist replies:

Most people have the impression of paradise. They experience the garden as perfectly tranquil and pleasing. If this is the impression that people have of my work, I'm more than happy.

It is truly impossible to underestimate the importance of this artist in the 21st century. He is uniquely impossible to categorise and least of all can he be affiliated to the field of Land Art. It is as if Finlay himself has absorbed the beauty and the pathos of the classical world of Western civilisation, then of the poetic idealism of the French Revolution, and also of the war-riven 20th century. Humanity is not the subject of any illusion in Finlay's mind and work, nor is it subject to parody or self-criticism. But to Finlay, it is 'the intellectuals (who are my problem), who seem to be in a position to deny their understanding of culture. Culture is beginning to despise culture'.

1. Sheeler J. Little Sparta: The Garden of Ian Hamilton Finlay. Photographs by Andrew Lawson. London: Frances Lincoln Ltd, 2003. (This is the only official and comprehensive study of Little Sparta).
2. Weilacher, U. Between Landscape Architecture and Land Art. Basel: Birkhauser, 1999: 87-105 (interview with Ian Hamilton Finlay).

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