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.