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This article is taken from PN Review 52, Volume 13 Number 2, November - December 1986.

Shock of Recognition: Ian Hamilton Finlay James Malpas

Ian Hamilton Finlay's most plangent motto, 'neoclassical rearmament', at once reassuring and threatening, bears the hallmark of his work as a whole. Its sense of inclusivity, and refusal to restrict itself to selected media, gives it a spaciousness and resonance all too rarely found in contemporary art.

Ian Hamilton Finlay: A Visual Primer (Reaktion Books, £24.00) reveals that he is as much interested in the methods and means of presenting this new 'classical' breadth of vision, as in that vision itself. Art works are not consumer-objects, more or less 'finished' when offered to the public, but capable of further refinement as subsequent associations emerge from and between them. The benefit the works themselves derive from this dialectic of creation and response is that they achieve a spontaneity and vigour which are only possible where the work's status as object and its meaning are not sundered.

Camus admired Greek drama for the fact that it excluded nothing. Finlay's work likewise ranges from the wit and word-play of his poems and cards, or the apparent naivety of his toy-building, through the aesthetically-shocking incongruity (as it seems) of aircraft-carriers as bird-tables, or an anti-aircraft gun as classical monument through its named associations (Oerlikon). The gardens and temples are the most grandiose of his reappraisals of our past culture, what we make of it at present and what we might still be capable of discerning in it.

Its corollary also is cause for concern to Finlay: the ...


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