Recently pipped for the Turner Prize, Ian Hamilton Finlay hasbeen described as poet, gardener and moralist. He rose to fame in the Sixties as Britain’s foremost concrete poet and his outdoor works have made him an artist of international stature — more highly regarded on the continent than in his native country. Previously a writer of plays, short stories and poetry,
he has created one ofthe most celebrated modern gardens in Britain on the land surrounding his home in Dunsyre, Lanarkshire. Kathleen Jamie talks to him on the publication of A Visual Primer— a guide to his work — and about his exhibition Reﬂections on the French Revolution showing at Edinburgh’s Graeme Murray Gallery.
There can be no visitors to The
1 Garden at Little Sparta; for the i winter. which is already threatening
over the hills. and because of the War. So. lan Hamilton Finlay. a slightly stooping figure. walks for a while through the fields at the back of Stonypath cottage. talking ofart. the Neoclassicist tradition. the War. He has little to say on the Turner Prize. has some quibble with the procedure. and £10,000 is not a lot of money these days — he deals with amounts and debts of thousands all the time. amounts. like ideas always slightly out of reach. You must be brave. he says. But his citation for the Turner Prize — given for
. contribution to Art. gives
prominence to his beleagured position at Little Sparta.
He uses the word ‘war‘ with no hint of mockery. no invisible quotation marks around it. and he uses it often. It refers to the bizarre tangle with Strathclyde Regional Council which was prominent in the press in 1983. On two occasions. unsuccessfully on the first. the Sheriff Officer attempted to remove some of Ian Hamilton Finlay’s work. to be sold to raise the amount due in rates on the Garden Temple at Little Sparta.
Temples. as religious buildings. are exempt from rates. Finlay knows this building as a Garden Temple. Strathclyde know it as an Art Gallery. Several pieces were removed from this building and are held in Glasgow.
Squabble. perhaps. breakdown in communication perhaps. but a war? Actions done without reference to law and involving violence are acts of war.
I ask if the argument is not this: that anyone could call his garden shed a temple to claim rates exemption on it. As we enter that building. exchanging our wellies for baffies. Finlay gives one of his frequent smiles. see. it‘s not a garden shed. is it?
It is Spartan. how easily the word comes to mind. He continues to talk about it. his tradition. the War. Neoclassicism. Saint-Just. The French Revolution. until I feel only pity for Strathclyde. that ‘Stalinist- Populist’ structure. who must. along
with the rest of Scotland and myself. feel that they are wholly out of their depth.
He is wholly consistent. He wants no favours for being an artist. that is emphatically not what the war is about. He doesn‘t want to ‘skive off paying rates. the money is there. he wants Law. in accordance with his
, thought he approves of large
bureaucracies and the concept of law. but wishes that law to be enforced. Temples are exempt from rates under law. If this building is a temple it is exempt. What the argument is about is the definition of Garden Temple. Ian Hamilton Finlay is probably one of the few people in the land who could define it. much less create one and his point
is that the Council admit not to
understand. but they wish to state criteria by which we can understand ‘Garden Temple'. Finlay objects to the substitution. as he sees it. of ‘criteria' by the council. in the place of law. and I suspect thinks that meaning. of “Garden Temple‘ is less the use of the building as its content. ls the garden crystalised. The themes of the garden. (nature. order?) as brought in from the cold.
Now l‘m struggling. But I do see that the argument is of much greater artistic importance that realised by Scotland. I ask if this is not because the neoclassisist tradition is alien to Scotland. and furthermore. abhorrent? And there we have the seeds of a thousand conversations. says the artist. I want to know. as does everyone who embarks on a conversation like this. ifwe can. must. need to. separate the aesthetic from the moral elements in Neoclassicism. as this is the tradition at work in the French Revolution and the Third Reich.
It is [an Hamilton Finlay‘s humour which saves him for me. over and over. Described as a sort of violent whimsy. Apollo brandishing machine gun. It is tremendously exciting too to see art at work. Again. in complete consistency with his tradition. lan Hamilton Finlay assimilates in a Hegelian manner. the War. rather than have it thwart him entirely. He actually called Strathclyde Council the ‘antithesis' to his work. There. in his own front
4 The List 15—28 November
garden is his art actualising itself.thus dissolving the barrier between art and reality. and then incorporating this ‘war' into his future art. Likewise gardens. in making a garden. you change the real world. art manifests itself outside. coming alive if you like. By now we‘re glad to go indoors among books and model boats fora cup oftea. We talk ofsimpler things. the artist’s love/hate relationship
with Scotland. he only has to point to
that day's .S'eorsman. who acknowledged the unveiling of a bronze relief in Glasgow with a photograph of a dog peeing against the plinth. for an example of the attitude he despairs of: overlapping art with leisure rather than with religion. depreciation. easy smugness.
()utside. it's darkening. He walks up to the farm gate. All afternoon we‘d been aware of the honking of geese as they gathered in a field nearby. l was glad to be outside. back in the tradition I know. blowing trees and swirling birds. As well as being quite overwhelmed.
The Temple (right), iorrnerly an outhouse. now transformed into a neo-classical temple dedicated to ‘Apollo, His Music. His Missiles. His Muses'. The root cause oithe ‘Little Sparta War' with Strathclyde Regional Council in which Hamilton Finlay has been engaged since Febmary1983. The Present Order, 1983 (tar right centre). ‘The Present Order is the disorder otthe Future'. A work based on the French revolution. The monumental tragments oi stone are arranged in the landscape and inscribed to ‘dramatise' the words oi Louis-Antoine Saint-Just. Apollo/Saint-Just (iar right below). A work that combines elements oi the Graeco-Homan world are combined with the French revolution and modern wartare. Brandishing a machine gun instead othis usual tyre and arrows this Apollo is perhaps an example ot Hamilton Finlay’s ‘violent whimsy’. Ian Hamilton Finlay (tar right above). Poet. gardener. moralistand artist under siege. ‘Certain gardens are described as retreats when they are really attacks!‘ Yves Abrioux's book on Ian Hamilton Finlay, AVisual Primer. published by Reaktion Books. will be reviewed in the next issue oi The List.