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Jacket 15 — December 2001   |   # 15  Contents   |   Homepage   |   Catalog   |

Brian Kim Stefans

on Ian Hamilton Finlay

This piece is 2,200 words or about five printed pages long.
Footnotes are given at the end of this file. Click on the note to be taken to it; likewise to return to the text.

Photo of FinlayScottish poet Ian Hamilton Finlay is certainly one of the most controversial and provocative artists working today, yet he has not been widely discussed by American poets not only because of his difficult “politics” but because of the wide range of his mediums for expression. After his early work which linked Scottish folk idioms with a deft exploration of cubist and constructivist aesthetics, Finlay has generally opted for such forms as the one-word poem, the poem that contains only information without contextualizing commentary (beyond an occasional footnote), or the poem printed along with a single emblematic image, forms that place his work outside of easy assimilation into popular postmodern rubrics.
    As a “concrete” poet he has taken the field to new levels, taking the earlier word-and-image juxtaposition and making the image the material of the poem itself; thus, in poems made out of neon lights (“Windflower” and “Strawberry Camouflage” are two), the pink or blue neon lights are contrasted with the words they construct.
    He has painted poems on the shells of tortoises and floated poems on wooden circles in ponds, and often links brief poems with three-dimensional images such as in “Nuclear Sail”, which is a depiction of the conning tower of a nuclear submarine carved out of black slate.
    Underlying and linking these explorations of form is Finlay’s elaboration of a language or constellation of figures by which he has hoped to point to a larger, abstract and primarily ethical universe, or to concretize this ethical universe through these figures. This universe is difficult to describe, however, for though it appears to contain relationships with systems such as those of the pre-Socratics, or to the writings of revolutionaries such as Robespierre and Saint-Just, it is an amalgam that is reconciled only in the work itself, which combines the specificity of meanings possible only through language with the immediacy of the visual perception of simple images, but conveyed like a cultural and intellectual puzzle.

Note: The Internet, of course, is a perfect medium for exploring such varieties of text/image juxtaposition. So far, the only net artist who has chosen to take the neo-Classical emblem as his model is William Poundstone, whose site New Digital Emblems is worth a visit for both historical background and his original, idiosyncratic compositions.

Born in 1925, Finlay has gone through many stages in his vocabulary as an artist and as a citizen in the arts community; indeed, he has turned his many conflicts with the Scottish Arts Council into the subject of some of his works, one of which was the “Crates Event” in 1979, an “event” based on the accidental return to Finlay of several works that had been confiscated by the SAC.
    At seventeen, Finlay served in the RASC and saw service in Germany; upon returning to Scotland, he worked as a shepherd in the Orkneys, and it was during this period that he had his dream of “Sweet Philosophy,” in which he found “visionary happiness in discoursing with classically-clad philosophers in a kind of bright green-grassed grove”. His early poems in Scottish caused a furor in Scotland but were greatly admired by Americans such as Lorine Niedecker and Robert Duncan. In fact, when Niedecker sent Finlay some of her poems that used non-standard American speech, he felt that he had found, perhaps for the first time, someone who could sympathize with his aesthetic interests, and he eventually translated a number of her poems into Scottish. This correspondence is described in the recent Finlay double-issue of the Scottish journal Chapman [see footnote], from which the following poems — the first Neidecker’s original, the second Finlay’s rendering — are reprinted (his interest in the “concrete” may also have been spurred by the great emphasis on the grapheme that translations into Scottish require):

She now lay deaf to death.
She could have grown a good rutabaga
in the burial ground
   and how she’d have loved these woods.
One of her pallbearers said I
   like a damfool followed a deer
wanted to see her jump a fence (
pretty thing
   the way she runs.

Noo lyin deef tae daith...
Och, think on aa the rhubarb
she micht hae grawn there
on her lair
   an hoo she wud
hae lood sic wids.
The wan o her pallbearers saye
   I, silly eedjit
gaed aff ahint a deer
never’d seen a deer
Loup over a fence ( O
       the braw
           wee dear...

Finlay founded the Wild Hawthorn Press with Jessie McGuffie, which eventually published books by Niedecker, Zukofsky and himself, and it is this project, along with his periodical Poor. Old. Tired. Horse. (the title is taken from Robert Creeley’s poem “Please”) that initiated his interest in design and typography. During this early period, he was also writing distinctive short stories and plays in a high Symbolist manner, but after a time he ceased any activity in these forms. He held his first exhibition of toys that he had designed in 1963, thus taking a further step in his progression to explorations of stasis, making a move — in the words of Yves Abrioux, author of Ian Hamlton Finlay, A Visual Primer — “away from Syntax toward ‘the Pure’”. Three years later, he settled with his wife Sue Finlay at Stonypath, where they began to construct their world-famous garden based on principles of eighteenth century English theories of landscape.
    Finlay has said in an interview: “Before we had the garden, I considered myself to be a poet and I wrote things in notebooks or I did prints. But with the garden, one makes this astonishing discovery that you can actually change a bit of the actual world by taking out a spade of earth. And this, to me, was really... a momentous discovery.” Finlay’s work changed dramatically when he started work on the garden, and he began to use imagery that not only defied the cosmopolitan in its rusticity, but provoked responses from viewers who were accustomed to flux, pastiche, irony, and psychological depth in their art.
    Imagery from the military became an element in his iconography, and soon the trawlers that represented the pastoral to him were being replaced by battleships such as the Japanese Yamato and the USS Enterprise.
    One of Finlay’s most illustrative printed works is the depiction of a tank in an overgrown forest with the words “Et In Arcadia Ego” beneath it, a reference to Poussin’s Arcadian Shepherds, depicting the shepherds gazing at this phrase carved in a tablet discovered in a forest. Abrioux writes that this image reflects “the progressive formation of the cultural concept of ‘Arcady’, with its almost infinite tissue of poetic references converging upon the point that even here, in the ideal pastoral world, death is present.” Finlay’s print, because it adopts a pre-existing motif, rises from the level of a moral “emblem” to an enigma, for (Abrioux writes) “the treasure, such as it is, is necessarily remote from us, and we have no foolproof method of lifting the hermetic seal.” That is, whereas the classical moral emblem is not aware of its medium and refers to nothing outside of itself, Finlay’s neo-classical “enigma” refers not only to the moral sentiment but to cultural predecessors, thus contrasting this apparently eternal equation to its own multiplicity of expressions throughout history.
    In this way, part of the strangeness of Finlay’s “Et In Arcadia Ego” is like that of Magritte’s “Ceci n’est pas une pipe” (his idiosyncratic homage to the French artist replaces the pipe with a machine gun) in that there is a visual distancing, or doubling, accompanying the directness of the verbal statement.
    Finlay has retained this Arcadian equation in the design of his own garden and those that he has been commissioned to design; the role of the “viewer”, then, upon visiting the garden, becomes that of a collaborator in its cultural reduplications. One critic has contrasted his neo-classical gardens with Poussin’s painting by observing that the former “[projects] the visitor into a concrete experience which is not limited by the borders of the picture frame or predetermined by the imperfect enunciation of the inscribed message.” A garden as ordered and orchestrated as Finlay’s is, however, still framed — and needs this frame, for its meanings are centered around its own contexts with the exterior world.
    This is an important element to remember when interpreting his work, for his gardens never want to colonize the outside, to populate it with replications of itself, but are always aware of their separateness and high artifice; they don’t even propose a vocabulary for the world through which it can observe itself, but merely an image — and actual location — in which the “eternal”, a sort of imageless ideal, can be sensed.
    “Finlay and commentators working with him have on occasion set his work in opposition to the modern world — a world whose values are characterized (adversely) as ‘secular’, ‘liberal’, ‘pluralistic’, ‘materialistic’, and ‘utilitarian’”, writes another critic, “Counter to this, some re-spiritualisation, some idea of a whole culture and a right relation to nature is suggested, in accord with what is called a ‘Western tradition’; and some history of loss is implied.”
    Because Finlay is both uncompromising yet indirect in his intentions — from one angle he is a visionary involved in a private symbology, from another a political propagandist as blatant as a Soviet poster artist — one hesitates to embrace or approve of his work, since one fears that hidden meanings may emerge to tip the scales, and turn his project from a delicate and profound investigation into obsessions with the military and totalitarian governments. He has taken, for instance, an interest in the architecture of the Third Reich, and has corresponded with the architect Albert Speer, who had designed, in secret, his own neo-classical garden while the Nazis were in power, and had in the process developed many theories of gardening.
    Because he is willing to correspond with people like Speer, and because there is no general discourse on how to approach the aesthetic aspects of such political phenomenon as the French Revolution and the Third Reich, gauging the value of his interest in the architect and his times is difficult. Is he merely interested in that which is absent from our contemporary art vocabulary, or does he want a resurrection of the values that underlay (in bastardized form) the aesthetic component of the world’s historical nightmares? Finlay’s work clearly champions the inevitabilities of nature over the illusory eternity that technology seems to provide, and yet does he have to use such imagery as the “SS” in the shape of lightning bolts — more imagery from the Third Reich — to make this point? As an artist who sets himself and his work apart from much of the “modern” — his gardens are designed to defy the highways, airports, and even other gardens, that are their neighbors — he has also taken this “setting apart” as the subject of his art itself, conceiving, it appears, the artist’s role in society as being akin to that of a soldier at war with the disposable and trivial, and hence finding a justification for the belligerence of his symbols.
    Finlay’s is a representational art that returns to the trees, wind and waves sacrificed in early modernism, but passing up the medium of paint and canvas so that the perceiver is returned to the object direct. A poem of his from 1968, composed entirely of the names of trawlers, contains a note of nostalgia that disappears when one realizes that the nostalgia being expressed is composed out of actualities that are, nonetheless, in danger of being lost; the trawlers become, in this way, concrete poems speaking of the loss of themselves both as medium and subject:

Green Waters
Blue Spray

Anna T
Karen B
Netta Croan

Constant Star

Starlit Waters
Moonlit Waters

His discovery, upon placing his first concrete poem on the landscape, was that the poet is not limited to describing Utopias but that the poet can usurp a medium that was once thought reserved to architects, and bring syntax to the physical landscape. In the process, he has also utilized a number of the most volatile symbols in his quest to escape an ironized (and hence forgetful) view of history, to find stasis in the postmodern flux, to describe the presence of the death in his “Arcady”, and to make cultural statements that are direct and altering, yet also enigmas.
    The works demand to be judged (the Epic Theater comes to mind) but one also recognizes the difficulty of rendering them propaganda for a political cause, for they all retain the quality of the “toy”, all of them foregrounding their artifice as much as anchoring themselves within the “ethical” conscience - retaining, finally, the sheen of a formalist self-referencing that place them well within the idiom of the postmodern.

Footnote: This essay was originally written in 1996 and published in the St. Mark's Poetry Project Newsletter. I decided not to revise it beyond a few grammatical changes. Because it was not an academic essay, it doesn't contain all of the sources, for which I apologize. — B.K.S.
Ian Hamilton Finlay. A Visual Primer, by Yves Abrioux. (Cambridge: MIT Press, 1992)
Chapman, No 78-79 Ian Hamilton Finlay, edited by Alec Finlay. (Edinburgh, 1995)
Wood Notes Wild. Essays on the poetry and art of Ian Hamilton Finlay, edited by Alec Finlay (Edinburgh: Paragon, 1995)

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