A self-burying artwork

In January 2008, a storm blew down a mature sitka spruce in the Forestry Commission plantation at Achnabreck, near Lochgilphead.  The falling tree took another three trees down with it, and their root plates lifted the thin layer of soil up with them, leaving a patch of bedrock almost clean.  A passer-by named Sally Wilkin noticed cup and ring markings on the bedrock, and reported the find to Kilmartin House Museum.  The whole area is full of rock art, with at least two more sites nearby at Achnabreck, another group less than a mile to the west at Cairnbaan, and many more sites in Kilmartin Glen.


Little trace remains of Little Sparta.  The books in the library were taken into a public collection, maybe digitised before they fell apart, maybe not, their data lost, in any case, within a single human lifetime, to digital obsolescence.  A few trees survive, none of them growing particularly old before dying of exposure on this land which always wanted to revert to rough grazing, and did so.  None of the ponds ever really wanted to be a pond; they have all dried up and the streams which fed them have returned to their original courses.  Maybe a few surreptitious votive offerings, of coins or trilobites or whatever, survive in the soil where the ponds used to be, to mark this as a place of contemplation or wishful thinking.  Lochan Eck has dried up too, but its sheer size and the depth of rammed clay beneath it mean that it survives as a crop-mark of sorts, showing up in dry weather as a patch of slightly more lush grass, the shape of an old-fashioned flat-iron seen in perspective.  The name Lochan Eck made it onto the OS map, and perhaps some memory of that name might survive, maybe attached to another feature in the landscape once the lochan is gone, maybe processed or mutated through whichever languages, if any, pass this way after Gaelic and English have left.  The stones are mostly gone, robbed out and re-used, to patch a dyke or embellish a rockery, or dug up after centuries and placed in a museum, next to the prehistoric and Roman remains of South Lanarkshire, the museum falling to ruin in its turn, resurfacing after yet more centuries as a curated assemblage of objects which makes no historical sense at all.  The foundations of the farm buildings remain, and this place will probably be read as a farm, ornamented or not.  The barn that was once a thrashing mill, then a ruin, then a walled garden, will be read as a barn.  The people who lived here will be known by what they threw away.  The main focus of archaeological interest will be the disused quarry to the south east of Stonypath, used as a rubbish dump by the farmer and others, with layers of compacted agricultural refuse and one narrow stratum of late 20th century stuff, maybe children’s toys, maybe adults’; small plastic things that will never biodegrade, glass marbles, model tanks.


In an area of rough pasture which was once a donkey paddock, and later an English parkland, a mature lime tree, Tilia x europaea, has fallen down.  The root plate of the tree lifted like a lid, revealing a circular plaque of Caithness stone beneath it.  The outline of the stone is impressed on the lifted roots — it may be that the presence of the stone limited the growth of the tree’s roots, making it prone to topple.  An inscription on the stone reads



If anyone can still read this (I never could), they will recognise it as a quote from Virgil’s Georgics, book 4:

He had lime trees and a most luxuriant pine
and all the fruit his bountiful tree took on at its first blooming
it kept to its ripening in autumn.

The soil around the plaque holds traces of many other trees, generation after generation of lime tree and pine, at one time a closely-packed circle of trees, each acting as a windbreak to shelter its neighbour from the worst of the effects of the fresh air.  The trees slowly built up a thick layer of leaf mould, burying the plaque, and the circle of trees became a clump, which gradually thinned out, until only the one old lime tree remained, out on its own and vulnerable to the Pentland storms.  When it fell, a gravestone appeared with its name on it.  There’s a person there too, rendered namelessly by a Latin pronoun, ILLI — and if Virgil survives, we will know that nameless pronoun for an old man who built a garden on a few acres of neglected land.



Thanks are due to the Little Sparta Trust for this residency, part of the Sharing Little Sparta programme.  My particular thanks to Alexia Holt, Laura Robertson and George Gilliland.  Thanks also to Julie Johnstone at the Scottish Poetry Library, and to the Mitchell Library in Glasgow for access to the Finlay works in their collections.  I’ve got a lot out of conversations with David BellinghamThomas A. Clark, Alec Finlay, Gerry Loose and Sarah Rose

25 inch map

I found a much more detailed 25 inch OS map of Stonypath on the NLS website: Lanark Sheet XXI.14 (Dunsyre).  Survey date: 1859 Publication date: 1864.  Click on the image for a bigger version.  The thrashing mill would have occupied the old barn which is now a hortus conclusus, the last work planned by Finlay for Little Sparta, and realised after his death.  Notice the multiple instances of the long S symbol, a mirror-image of Finlay’s beloved proofreading symbol for transposition of letters.  These are “area brace” symbols, showing that the lands on either side of a linear feature (stream, fence, path etc.) were part of the same parcel of land.



The sign of the boomerang


Ian Hamilton Finlay, He Spoke Like an Axe (with Richard Healy, 1984).

It’s hard to learn about the French Revolution or the Third Reich from Finlay’s work, though you do end up learning about them, if you have any curiosity at all.  It’s not quite enough to say that these are things that were once common knowledge and that dropped out of public awareness quite recently.  That works, up to a point, with the Classical references — far more people of Finlay’s generation than mine would have known Latin and read Ovid and Virgil, though the ones who did would probably have gone to grammar schools or private ones.  Finlay’s other focal interests seem much more idiosyncratic, or at least the kind of focus that he brings to bear on them seems to force much of the rest of the world into a blurred margin.  That may be a generational thing, unavoidable if you were born in 1925, bombed as a kid and conscripted before the end of the war — I think of the way the Second World War pops up again and again in Spike Milligan’s television comedy of the 1970s, with Hitler lampooned in every episode as if he was still a contemporary.

There’s something really troubling about work that is as belligerent as Finlay’s became, but whose battles were art events staged in the service of a personal philosophy.  Real wars continued to happen, real people died, but you hardly see them in Finlay’s work — the Little Spartan wars were the main event.  There’s a tiny booklet from 1991, made just after the first Gulf War:





Fingers: model’s own.  There’s a weird kind of double disconnect here, both from the deadly seriousness of the actual mass bombing, and from the language itself (people did find the word Scud funny — for younger viewers, it’s the name of a missile — but those two definitions weren’t what they were laughing at).  I find that booklet amazingly upsetting.

Finlay’s basic mode of working, after the very early 1960s, involved the making of artworks as limited, discrete gestures, deliberately never building into a linear narrative or argument, but accumulating meaning in relation to every other artwork he made.  It works beautifully until he gets really angry, at which point you wish for his own sake that he would allow himself more mental space than the successive axe-chops of the bulletins issued under the aegis of the Committee of Public Safety, Little Sparta.   The best of these are guillotine-sharp:


(This is an early response to the mention of Stonypath in the National Trust Guide to Follies, whose editors found the garden insufficiently “manly” for their tastes.  Finlay made at least seven other artworks against the Guide, and this was a fairly minor skirmish in a long and angry decade).

Too often in the 1980s, Finlay seems like a man who has taken a vow of silence which he tries to circumvent by holding up incendiary placards.  It can’t have been that frightening to be on the receiving end of this ire — the publications still read as calculated formal gestures, almost always involving visual artist collaborators — but you sense that Finlay wants them to strike home in a way they rarely do, and you sense the frustration and hurt behind them, channelled into more and more self-defeatingly aggressive works.

One of Finlay’s best and funniest early pieces is the 1971 card The Sign of the Nudge, made with Michael Harvey:


It’s a gently apocalyptic literal nudge, intended to encourage recipients who owed Finlay money to pay up.  The crooked elbow is also a scythe (a shape that takes part in an incredibly complex network of metamorphoses in Finlay’s later work), but I can’t help thinking it looks like a boomerang too.  If your boomerang comes back, you know it hasn’t hit anything but you.

It didn’t have to be like that.  Finlay was capable of immensely subtle responses to the work of artists he respected but didn’t quite agree with.  It took me several visits to Little Sparta before I realised there was a homage to Mallarmé in the garden — a cinerary urn in Portland stone, with the inscription “VNE OEVVRE PURE” (carved by Nicholas Sloan, c.1982).  The reference is to Mallarmé’s essay “Crise de vers”, the quote “L’oeuvre pure implique la disparition élocutoire du poète, qui cède l’initiative aux mots, par le heurt de leur inégalité mobilisés; ils s’allument de reflets réciproques comme une virtuelle traînée de feux sur des pierreries, remplaçant la respiration perceptible en l’ancien souffle lyrique ou la direction personnelle enthousiaste de la phrase” [“The pure work implies the disappearance of the poet as speaker, who cedes the initiative to the words, mobilised by the clash of their inequality; they illuminate one another with reciprocal reflections like a virtual trail of light upon precious stones, replacing the respiration perceptible in the old lyric breath or the enthusiastic personal directing of the sentence”].  Finlay, like Mallarmé, was a seeker after a certain kind of purity in art, but the disappearance of the poet as speaker implies death — maybe the really pure work would prove as inert as our ashes.

One of the most unexpectable things Finlay ever made was the 1967 booklet Ocean Stripe 5.  The booklet juxtaposes brief quotations from essays on sound poetry by Kurt Schwitters, Ernst Jandl and Paul de Vree with photographs of boats at sea, taken from issues of Fishing News:



The booklet ends with a Postscript, a sound poem by Schwitters:


Finlay was anything but a sound poet, stressing that any apparently rhythmic repetitions in his early visual poems were a kind of silent patterning meant for the eye, not calling to be voiced.  He liked Schwitters, though — for his humour, his domesticity and, here, for the parallel between Schwitters’s jawbreaking consonant clusters and Finlay’s own fascination with the letter codes painted on fishing boats, a kind of abstract sound poetry linking them to their ports of origin.  It’s a book of silent pictures of often stormy seas (the cover shows a turbulent sea and sky with no boats visible).  The sounds of wind (through trees) and (falling) water were the only sounds engineered into the garden at Little Sparta, and there’s a playful sense here of the theorisings of the sound poets being outpractised by nature.  Schwitters, de Vree and Jandl are all at sea, but only Finlay knows how to sail a boat.