Ian Hamilton Finlay is well placed within Tate Britain’s cavernous Duveen Gallery; the work hangs within yawning archways and glows beneath colossal domed ceilings. This space gives Finlay’s text pieces much needed room to breathe, to converse with one another but to still stand alone as, whilst they may carry a common theme, often their aesthetics are strongly opposing.
With stone carvings referencing Classicism, candy-coloured text pieces and a single buzzing neon, this exhibition is timeless – which is fitting, as the work concentrates on a theme consistently relevant throughout history: war.
Finlay was a celebrated gardener and before this a poet – a history evident in works which evidence an adoration for language and great knowledge of flora and fauna. Finlay’s stone carvings – A Wartime Garden – are particularly clear in satirising, normalising, even beautifying aspects of war: linguistically disguising it beneath titles such as “pergola” and “fountain” and physically with clever viewing angles which turn tanks into temples. These works make a social comment, but are more a dark joke uttered under Finlay’s breath than a protest – war is commonplace, inevitable, “the order of things” as one of these faux marbles states.
These excerpts are translated from the writings of German philosophers, and whilst Finlay also deviates to French and English at times, much of the exhibition’s text remains in Latin – a language which may be seen as bourgeois, dead even, but as the root of many modern languages it as much dead as it is universal.
Latin letters dapple an installation of bronzes both pastoral and violent: a guillotine, a gun, a drum and a hoe and spade. The guillotine hangs ominously above this odd array, and is inscribed with “QUIN MORERE UT MERITALS FERROQUE AVERTE DOLOREM”: “Die as you deserve, with steel end your pain”. Although just sculptures, props, these objects are surprisingly threatening: the razor-sharp guillotine blade glints – unnervingly severe, the plate of the spade forcefully impales cream stone. Violence is commonplace, references scattered through the pieces – disturbing moments ready to catch the viewer out.
The concepts of the exhibition are multiple and complex: the French Revolution, agriculture, the Roman poet Virgil’s vision of pastoral life and its possible effect upon the political ideology of Jean-Jacques Rosseau – a man who saw the natural state of man as solitary, non-intellectual and crucially non-violent; summed up, Finlay presents the fight for an ideal.
However this information is excess, the work is powerful enough in just its language. Emotive phrases “STARLIT WATERS” and “LEAD US” sit up sternly in glass cabinets – the former pinned down with a Guantanamo-Bay-orange net, diminishing the freedom of the initial statement and instead insinuating constraint, control. These pieces are absolutely basic in their construction, and could be considered misplaced, but they function to reinforce an air of timelessness and ironic humour.
Subtly glowing amongst all of these harsh bronzes and heavy text is a small bottle-brown orb, nestled in a pile of delicate beige, rose and lemon nets. It is a nautical float, glass and hand-inscribed with uncharacteristic curling calligraphy “there is a ship named the wave sheaf” – referencing Finlay’s previous poem card: Is There A Ship Named The Wave Sheaf?
This little sphere, quietly glimmering beneath Tate’s enormous vaulted ceiling, offers a much-needed glint of sensitivity amongst the solid bronze and stone – its smooth surface reflecting the brilliant light of Finlay’s neon in Tate’s dim Duveen Gallery. “Je vous salue Marat” it says, paying homage to a violent Jacobin revolutionary murdered in his bath, simple French handwriting is in fact steeped in violent history. With these pieces Finlay has tamed war, presenting violence in such a muted form that it can be analysed rather than to shock.
Ian Hamilton Finlay himself was a revolutionary gardener, and as this exhibition displays was clearly gripped by those who equally dared to imagine and to pursue an ideal by whatever means necessary.