The Given – The Ordinary – The Mystical
A reading of LITTLE SPARTA
The garden of IAN HAMILTON FINLAY
MAN A PASSERBY
“ Nothingness nihilating as time in space
is what makes man a passerby
in the spatial world ”
(Kojeve – Finlay)
Little Sparta, as a garden, exists less as an arrangement of plants, and more as a placement of ideas.
Ian Hamilton Finlay considered the garden as his single most important artwork, even though it consists of almost 280 individual pieces, these are meant to be seen, read and understood as one composition, complete in itself.
This notion of composition is key to understanding how language works in Finlay’s art. He began his creative career as a poet, a central figure in the international movement of Concrete poetry.
Finlay moved to a derelict smallholding set in moorland by the Pentland hills southwest of Edinburgh in 1966. Over the course of the next 40 years he developed the garden as Little Sparta and its presence as an artwork. He continued to think of himself as a poet rather than a visual artist. The vital shift he made by being in this new environment was the realisation that language as poetry could be transposed into the landscape. That in turn extended and influenced the themes and ideas he was working with.
Concrete poetry, with its minimal forms and concentration on the appearance of words, its specific use of typography, how the lettering is arranged on the page, fell in readily with this new impulse to set language into the possibility of what a garden could be.
There has always been language in landscape settings, as signage or memorial, so it is already familiar to us. Finlay uses these presences of language and adjusts them, because of their familiarity as objects – headstones, signposts, obelisks, classical statuary. They are part of our received visual vocabulary. It does not feel alien to encounter all of these objects in an outdoor environment. But when they are gathered together in a garden setting and used as carriers of poetry or as expressions of political, moral or philosophical dialogue, they become something much more.
The positioning of works is vital. They are discovered at the end of pathways, in open clearings or formal settings, camouflaged by planting, or referencing their immediate surroundings, playing and punning with scale and an understanding of sense of place.
Finlay chooses to ‘sign’ the landscape with language in various ways.
The first and most obvious is in acknowledging or paying homage to key figures he deems most important to him: Other artists, particularly painters of Classical landscapes, which are for Finlay a correct or ideal representation of an Arcadian scene.
In the Temple garden pool there sits a small islet, a direct recreation of Albrecht Durer’s painting The Great Piece of Turf. At its centre Finlay places a small stone block carved with Durer’s initials AD. There are several layers of artifice happening here. First in Durer’s painting which makes its portrayal of a corner of the natural world lifted apart from that world. This then is made real again by Finlay’s deliberate reconstruction of the same scene, and setting it as a real planted form, which is then made artificial again by the inclusion of the carved stone initals. We are asked to query representation and the real, beauty and nature, the wild and the organised, the place and shape of lettering and language, all contained within this one simplified trope.
Claude Lorrain also appears in several works in the garden. An obelisk by the top pond inscribed IL RIPOSO DI CLAUDIO does in fact overlook a peaceful place as it might appear in one of his landscapes. A small stone plaque which rests by the edge of the water bears the inscription See POUSSIN / Hear LORRAIN indicating the overwhelming sensory experience transmitted through each of these artists’ depictions of natural scenes. Finally, a cast concrete bridge, painted a rich pink tone (terre d’egypte). Inscribed on its side with the classical form of Claude’s name – CLAVDI. This recreates an idyllic scene from the corner of one of his paintings – a small pool, surrounded by gunnera – a large exotic architectural plant, here replaced by Finlay with rhubarb, a similar form, but much more in scale to its setting here, and also much more useful and tasty. The recreated scene is ‘signed’ as a homage to Lorrain, an acknowledgment of how both Lorrain and Finlay’s characterisations of nature combine and inform one another.
There are others – Caspar David Friedrich, Corot, Guercino, Giorgione – this last takes the notion a step further. A curved wooden bench which sits at the entrance to the Wild Garden has the Latin inscription ELECTIS ARBORIBUS AMOENISSIMUS (A Delightful Spot beneath Chosen Trees). This in turn taken from a description of Giorgioni’s painting The Tempest. The bench set here represents a literal fragment of an imagined scene.
Beyond this act of ‘signing’ of found or imagined landscapes, Finlay also creates his own unique language or vocabulary, giving new poetic ‘dictionary’ redefinitions of words. This finds a ready expression in the slate milestone MAN n. A PASSERBY. Here the familiar is re-contextualised and gives a visual nudge or recognition that we are all temporal, we are all passersby through life. A milestone seems an appropriate carrier of this message, as a marker of distance travelled or yet to come. It is a very compact expression of an idea, but nearby we discover the source of this definition, a quotation from the Hegelian philosopher Alexandre Kojeve, Nothingness nihilating as time in space is what makes man a passerby in the spatial world inscribed on a stone bench. Finlay removes the essential words from this longer musing and in so doing concentrates the impact or purpose of the new definition.
Words and language link us to other things. There are a number of instances of works in the garden where a single word will stop us in our tracks. By the end of the lochan what looks like a worn section of wooden fence dips into the water, but when we come closer we see it has the single word PICTURESQUE inscribed in Roman letters on the side. Looking up we encounter what is in effect a picturesque scene, overlooking the water to the hillside and moorland beyond. This immediately gives a flash of recognition, but because Finlay has put the scenery into language by deliberately placing the word there we are compelled to ‘read’ the scene. All our associations of what the ‘picturesque’ means from literature and landscape painting are all compounded into a single word. It is a sort of joining effect, where other pieces are less literal and conceal their meaning, here the answer is given. It is in front of us just as much as it is within us.
Where further explanation is required to enable us to understand what is happening it can be easily found.
A sequence of milestones use boat names and their port numbers or registration. These are then joined together by Finlay revealing a form of ‘found’ poetry. Boat names are often wives or lovers, figures from mythology, the elements. Here they become linked as very abbreviated histories:
STAR OF FAITH LH77
OLIVE LEAF BCK210 SERENE BF46
ODYSSEUS PD294 TRAVELLER AH71
The source of these was a book entitled Olsen’s Fisherman’s Nautical Almanac – a listing of all of the recorded fishing boat names, picked out and partnered in appropriate pairings. We are taken on voyages of discovery by this landlocked garden of the sea….
One other central influence is the presence of the Classical world. In a contemporary context this could somehow feel false or no longer relevant, but Finlay extracts from it and makes his own mythologies which are very deliberately connected to current practices and principles.
One of the old barns on the property was converted by Finlay into a garden temple – the Temple of Apollo. On its facade these words are inscribed TO APOLLO HIS MUSIC HIS MISSILES HIS MUSES. These are the elements of the god himself but also happen to chime directly with Finlay’s concerns and expressions as artist and poet. The status of this building became contentious as Finlay declared that as a temple it should be considered a religious building and as such should be exempt from the payment of taxes. The local authorities refused to accept this, and so began a protracted series of exchanges which ended in a literal warlike situation and the staging of the Battle of Little Sparta. Finlay gathered his supporters, named the St. Just Vigilanties, and they saw off the officials who had come to steal artworks in lieu of payment. The battle was won.
Finlay’s argument was on a clear matter of principle, that a garden temple should be accorded the same status as any other religious building, and Apollo is certainly as good as any other god. It was important to him also that art should be seen to have a spiritual function in the fullest sense.
Again there is an awkwardness in accepting ideas about increasing secularisation, and the concept of piety in art. Finlay’s argument is that this is the only way art can truly have relevance, no matter what form it takes or how it is expressed.
Apollo is the reigning deity of the garden, and appears in different guises. In one shaded corner of the woodland sits a large bust of his head, gilded gold and using the features of Saint Just, one of the key protagonists of the French Revolution, thus combining two of the major thematic concerns of the garden. On its forehead, like a graffito, are inscribed the words APOLLON TERRORISTE. We can readily read these as referencing the French Revolution and the Reign of Terror, when many of the central figures met their death by guillotine – decapitated – as the bust itself sitting here on the ground. But we are also reminded that Apollo himself was a righteous and vindictive god. Challenged to a contest on the flute (which was the god’s instrument) by a youth, Marsyas, who then had the audacity to outplay and win the competition, Apollo meted out his punishment by flaying the youth alive. Ideas of Terror and Virtue are joined.
The garden was always intended only to be viewed or visited in summertime, when many of the effects become apparent. The play of light and shade, the sound of wind through the tree canopy echoing the sound of the waves, suggesting the romantic presence of an inland sea, the camouflage provided by grasses or flowers in bloom. Its scale implies that it should be encountered as a solitary experience, or with a companion.
As time passes, the garden inevitably changes. Not only the simple regular seasonal changes but also what happens to the artworks themselves in relation to their setting in a natural growing environment. Works which were once in proportion change and look out of scale as a tree behind them grows. Pieces collapse or break as they are exposed to the elements.
While decay is part of the philosophical motivation of the garden, and it is a balance of how the space should function and how much can be be preserved. However, a garden of language that becomes illegible or unreadable has lost its key function, so tending the garden also becomes a process of conservation.
For the realisation of his artworks Finlay worked very closely with chosen collaborators, by seeking out the the best craftspeople, either lettercarvers or sculptors, to realise his ideas, and so he found a coherent way to express his concepts. Even though they are made by a number of different people, they are all immediately recognisable as Finlay artworks because of the singularity of vision and the strength and association of ideas.
Here is a landscape filled with objects and words – talismans and signifiers – thus distilling time, imaginings, interrogating the presence of words and the exactness of their meanings.
The use of language in the garden at Little Sparta, how Finlay ‘signs’ the landscape, reveals to us our myriad histories, journeys, romances, ideologies. The rhymes and rhythms which take from their sources the Given (what there is), the Ordinary (what we understand) and impart the Mystical (what we consider or think about).
Art, Finlay states, is a small adjustment, and it is a measure of the effectiveness and importance of Little Sparta, both as garden and as artwork, that it can alter us and our perception of the world.
Photo © Sam Rebben © Estate of Ian Hamilton Finlay