Minimalism - Part III
I had, of course, been familiar with the poetry of Ian Hamilton Finlay, prior to traveling to Scotland in 2005, as a part of our trip to the British Isles that year. The Dancers Inherit the Party  had been available for some years, and the occasional whimsical "concrete poem" of his would turn up in periodicals in the 1960's and 1970's. Nevertheless, awareness of the full range of Finlay's work in America has lagged far behind his reputation on the Continent. I'm not quite sure why this should be. It may have something to do with the apprehension that he's just a minor poet who got sidetracked into sculpture and minimalism.
Finlay's graphic work has dimensions which go far beyond the concept of the page, the book, and the broadside. His preoccupations include an interest in classical architecture (and garden design), glyphs, symbolic sculpture, collage. His work has affinities to Schwitters, Moholy-Nagy, John Soane, Russian Constructivism, as well as a host of other influences. My wife and I planned to visit Finlay's garden, Little Sparta, at the suggestion of George Albon, a poet living in San Francisco. He'd seen it a year or two earlier, and thought it worth taking a detour to experience. Little Sparta is about 30 miles south of Edinburgh in farming country. The narrow roads take you through rolling green hills, stone buildings. The property is a converted farm house at the edge of a hill. Finlay purchased the property as a residence, and set about developing the open land surrounding it as a continous project: A post-Modern landscape garden, complete with pathways, sculptures, bridges, and unusual plants. The construction is economical, though not claustrophobic. It's designed to take you through a series of views and discoveries--there are inscriptions on stones at your feet, on urns, on the sides of walls, buildings, etc. Many have classical references, or are direct quotations in languages other than English (such as Latin). There are fragments of architectural detail. Finlay was interested in nautical themes, as well as Nazi iconography, toy boats, the French Revolution (its spirit and literature). All of this is evident in the thematic content of the garden.
When we visited Little Sparta, Finlay was gracious enough to meet with us over tea, and to talk a little about the place. He seemed rather thin--as would later become apparent he was suffering from the cancer that would take his life just a few months later. He was very modest, and joked about offering to let me "wet my [fishing] line" in his pond out back if I ever had the opportunity to make a return visit. The photo below looks out from just inside the entry gate to the property, which, since his death, is being turned into a trust estate for perpetual use by the public. Finlay's interest in visual poetry eventually led him to produce limited issue post-card and decorative small broadside runs, the sale of which helped support his garden expansions. Over time, he was less interested in writing "poems" than in leaving permanent physical artifacts/illustrations of his ideas. This tendency is unusual, taken to this scale. Towards the end of his career, Finlay was engaged by a number of clients to design garden spaces--many of them in France and other Western European settings. The full range of his ideas can't be easily summarized without a full documentation of these far-flung projects. The book Works in Europe 1972-1995, is a good place to start (lots of good color photos).
For those wishing to visit the garden, a phone-call a few days in advance is recommended. The hours are fairly flexible, I believe, but you can't simply show up unannounced. It can be seen as a sort of self-guided tour, since the space isn't really very large.
The question remains, which I've not really addressed: What is it about Little Sparta that makes it "post-Modern"? One would have to include the ambiguous, contradictory symbolism of imagery and words. The garden isn't meant simply as a beautiful place to sit in, or have a picnic in, though that would certainly be possible. Second, it's designed to make you think about ideas in history, not simply as memorials of the grateful dead, or as empty mottos of cliche philosphical homily. Third, its economy of means, a kind of intersection of competing concepts of vista, enclosure, termination and continuity, maze and gameboard. In the garden, you are, in a sense, at the mercy of a slightly mischievous dilettante, who is throwing you curves at every turn. His garden is a giant oxymoron, leveraged with audacious whimsicality. A kind of improbable masterpiece set amongst the remote countryside of Southern Scotland, an eccentric's diversion, an anachronism for the curious. I hope to revisit it one day.