Ian Hamilton Finlay: A conversation
16/02/98Conversation: Ian Hamilton Finlay and Robin Gillanders, February 1998
Published in ‘Little Sparta, Portrait of a Garden’ NGS 1998
DRIVING UP THE path to Little Sparta it seems as if a tank has preceded me, as deep ruts
and water logged potholes are negotiated on the windswept hillside. Even from a distance the
garden looks bleak, glimpsed through desolate trees. I’m going to record a conversation with
Ian. We have never really talked about the garden and his creative process, and this seems an
opportunity. In some respects, the recording will be like making a photographic portrait –
similar possibilities, expectations and anxieties. Both are dialogues where the outcome is by
no means certain.
Into the familiar sitting room – the humble proportions of a traditional Scottish farm
cottage. Logs smoulder in the grate, above which is the inscription: ‘Hives thru’ leaves,
Wings thru’ waves’. Books hold dominion here: every inch of wall space is clad with
volumes on art, philosophy, poetry, and history. An open bookshelf runs across the floor;
they are piled on the carpet and overflow on tables. A bust of Robespierre sits in the window
garlanded with more books. There is a shelf with model boats, an ancient typewriter and a
CD player with piles of CDs: the only apparent concession to modern technology. It’s a cosy
if somewhat claustrophobic clutter. There is just room for a battered armchair and a single
bed on which as usual, the morning’s mail is scattered. On the pillow lies a model sailing
boat – it’s been there since last summer when I photographed it for one of Ian’s cards.
As always, I am ushered to sit in the fireside chair while Ian perches on the edge of the bed,
leaning against the fireguard. We chat for a while about his newly adopted cats, pressures of
work, and so on. Eventually I bring out the pocket tape recorder, as self consciously as I
would a camera, and place it on a pair of socks on a stool between us. I decide to ask him an
‘easy’ question first. Would he describe himself as a ‘Postmodernist’ or perhaps as a
‘No... no... neither. I would just describe myself as a poet. ‘Postmodernism’ implies an
irony which is only occasionally in my work, and some of my work is conceptual, but the
problem with conceptual is that it implies a distance from whatever material form is being
used. These things are very important to me. Art has to be both the idea and its realisation.
So much of contemporary art is so bad – some of it would be ok if it were better done – no
thought about use of words or typeface or anything. I mean some of it is not art as I
understand it at all. It is some other kind of activity, like some particular kind of
I next asked Ian about something that has always concerned me as a photographer, the
relationship between form and content, beauty and intellect.
‘One of the things that distinguishes your work from most postmodernists and
conceptualists, and from what is going on in contemporary art, is that beauty is extremely
important to you...’
‘As of course are ideas and intellect.’
‘I remember you once saying, referring to modernist poetry, it wasn’t enough just to be
thoughtful, it was necessary also to be intellectual. I wonder whether this idea of the aesthetic and the importance of beauty is rather like a Trojan horse for introducing ideas. Do you see it as that?’
‘No, no. I can’t see it. To try to separate the idea of art from the idea of beauty seems to
me quite grotesque. It’s like separating the idea of football from the idea of goals. I
wouldn’t understand. I mean I see that people do it but I wouldn’t understand it myself’.
I tell Ian that as a photographer using a medium which is supposedly instantaneous I
sometimes respond to places and people on an intuitive level, and the intellectual process
very often comes as the work is being made or even some time after the work has been
completed. I expect him to disagree.
‘Yes, yes, but I’m much the same. My first idea about concrete poetry was wholly intuitive.
I had never heard of Concrete poetry at all and I tried to describe it to other Scottish poets
and they didn’t know what I was talking about. Then when I saw Concrete poetry I was quite
amazed – this was the thing I had been talking about. So I came to it entirely from within
myself, and this is the same with almost everything. Begin with the intuitive and then try to
find the equivalence of it in the already existing culture. You sometimes wonder where it
comes from. In general I would say it is to do with being in touch with the possibilities of the
time in some way. Not intellectually, but in another way.’
We talk for a while about what drives artists to create, and discuss the relationship between
ambition and the need to be good at what they do. Ian says that he often wonders why he
does it and I suggest to him, with some trepidation, that some artists are impelled to
communicate something about themselves.
‘No... no... I don’t think that at all. Such an idea would never enter my head’
‘Because you’re not an egotist are you?’
‘No, not in that way anyway. I would never, never think of the Arts as communicating
anything about myself. I don’t know, it is a kind of magic or something in art, but of course I
hardly ever manage it, – just occasionally – and then you see a glimpse or something of some
altogether finer life or something like that.’
‘So there is almost a spiritual aspect?’.
‘Oh absolutely. Oh yes. Yes. I mean when you experience that, you think “oh this is it, this
is what I want in my life”, but of course in my case I hardly ever get it. Recently I wanted to
make a little book and wanted to use the first verse of that poem by Hölderlin – the one that’s
on the bench out there – and I asked my friend Harry Gilonis who knows German if he would
translate it. It’s a very nice verse about the evening, about the smoke rising from the
chimney; the evening bell is sounding in the little village and so on. Anyway, in his
translation, Harry put “the smoke rises from the chimney straightforwardly” . I thought this
was really amazing – inclusive of the cottage being simple and the land being simple – to me
that was just miraculous. That one word was everything. Harry reviewed a recent book and
made one or two criticisms and apologised for that, but I said it was OK: for your
‘straightforwardly’ I forgive you everything, forever. I can’t explain it, it’s so amazing this
word operating in that kind of way. That’s a feeling I very, very occasionally get from making
art. You have to endure a thousand hours of frustration to get one minute of that feeling. It is
as if it opens onto a finer world, but that to me is art. And this thing art is what in a way
people don’t see any more. It’s a thing in a way I’ve always seen since I was wee – not been
able to do, but seen and wanted to give my life to, for whatever reason.’
‘This word ‘straightforwardly’ was accidental in a way.’
‘And the accident led to some sort of revelation?’
‘Yes... I mean its not like you would say, a posh word. It’s wonderful but it’s not like some gilded word. It is like a revelation... or an epiphany. That to me is what art can achieve and it doesn’t matter if it’s a sonnet or a monostich or whatever. If you can achieve that, that is the great thing. But why one would want to achieve it I don’t know. It just seems to open onto another possibility completely, which is the opposite of prosaic’
‘One wouldn’t have expected accidents when you are forming words. The production of
words, one would imagine, would be a calculated cerebral process’.
‘It can be completely that. I don’t think there is any rule about it, but of course it is a question of recognising it.’
‘In photography you never have total control because the picture is made so quickly. It is
much more likely that there are these happy accidents – these rare, but almost revelatory
experiences when you look at the photograph and see what you’ve done. Things you perhaps
didn’t see in the viewfinder – wonderful juxtapositions and relationships that you do, though,
need to recognise’
‘But recognition is a form of creating, isn’t it?’.
‘Well I think it is – ’
‘Ian, I would like to talk more about the garden and why you spend so much time and
energy on it. After all not many people see it.’
‘Basically because it was a possibility – the ground was there and so there was a
possibility, and I like to realise possibilities. That was the main thing at the beginning. And
then of course you get interested and it makes its own propositions to you. But there is also
the magic in changing a bit of the world – I really like that –I really like that feeling – more
satisfactory to me than just painting a picture...’
‘To dig your spade into a bit of the hillside – but isn’t it more than that? Isn’t the garden
one large Concrete Poem?’
‘I don’t know what the garden is really – I don’t know. In general the garden is it’s own
alibi: it proved it’s own necessity.’
‘And you are happy that people should see the garden on a variety of different
levels, whether it is on an intellectual or a subjective level?’
‘Yes, because it exists on all those levels.’
‘And it is a dialogue, isn’t it?’
One of the cats navigates it’s way between my ankles and towards the door. Ian gets up to
let him out. This seems almost a natural end to our ‘conversation’, and I consider turning off
the tape, but when he returns he continues...
‘Now that I’m older I can’t really do so much, but I used to really work quite hard at the
garden, digging the ponds on November days with the water coming over the top of my
wellies. I have always been aware of how imperfect the garden is because so much of it was
done without money and in desperation. Like how could you possibly buy a spade and so on.
There was a lot of anguish in it’
‘Are you ever completely satisfied with work that you do?’
‘No... sometimes if I could manage a “straightforwardly”, I would feel happy for several
days’. He laughs, ‘but then I would have to feel that I could do it again... that’s the trouble.’
‘To repeat it...
‘Yes... not ‘it’ but the same epiphany’.