By Sarah Richter, a candidate for the MA in Art History at Richmond the American International University in London.
Ian Hamilton Finlay’s show currently at the Victoria Miro Gallery is evocative of classicism, coupled with an informed philosophical and historical glance into tradition. The show is entitled Definitions and is punctuated throughout the gallery with Finlay’s often witty and multivalent definitions of words such as Purity, Apollo, Inspiration and Militaria. Illustrate Finlay’s desire to explore the materiality of words in relations to the sculptures which are the other aspect of the culture. The presence of these classical sculptures it feels like one is walking the mystical carnage of a preserved world of antiquity, only intact to share knowledge and predict the future, which alas remains uncertain and far removed from the seeming certainty of antiquity.
This uncertainty manifests itself in the series of bronze busts entitled, Four Muses. In mythology, there were always three muses were the artistic inspiration of man. Traditionally representing beauty, charm and creativity, these women were the reason’s man created art and always possessed solidity as to who they would inspire and the great product of this inspiration would become a milestone in the historical record of artist production. Finlay has however, depicted four muses. While the three are expected the fourth is not, and she, facing the same direction as the others but still she looks into the future, rather uncertain and without the same solidarity prescribed to the other muses and in this way Finlay appears to be questioning the investment contemporary society has placed in antiquity concerning politics and academia in establishing foundations.
In the upstairs of the gallery, there are a series of small, temple like structures to walk in and also there are a series of five stone statues. The work, Five Finials, show’s five stone sculptures in an evolutionary state. Beginning with a circular sculpture and evolving to an orb, then developing into a cone shape and an acorn and then finally evolving into a grenade. Showing this progression of art as well as military is something that represents the evolution of man kind, warfare and the distance we have set between our society and that of antiquity. Seemingly only statues, these little sculptures possess a meaning that hides behind the innocuous, seemingly harmless guise of being only statues, but they are much more than that, commenting on politics, society and classicism.
After examining the sculptures, which without an understanding of classicism may be a bit difficult to fully grasp, the definitions which magically manifest on the walls, serve as a way to better illustrate the artists message as conveyed through his sculptures. He takes words that an audience feels they understand or know in passing and then breaks them down into short, witty phrases that incite a laugh and subsequently a better understanding of the cohesiveness of the show.
The entire oeuvre of Finlay’s work presented here is investigating the relationship between Ancient Greek and Roman classicism which inspires so much of life and tradition today in relation to the volatile environment of today’s society and the way that many of those values have been lost. By employing classical busts and columns, Finlay evokes tradition but in a new and interesting way that uses his perfectly choreographed definitions throughout the gallery to take the viewer on a journey of the vitality of the written word and its necessity in understanding everything. This rings true in examining today’s world where we constantly peruse the Internet for immediacy of explanation and understanding. Society today needs that relationship between word and image so we can fully and instantly gains an understanding of what’s happening around us. The beauty of the show though is the open-ended nature of the definitions and the sculpture which allows for every visitor to gain a different understanding and take away a variety of meanings.
His employment of lost traditional forms of art production such as stone tablets etched with words, marble busts to record a likeness of a person gone by and the formalist approach of defining every word and concept on first impression situate this show as a neoclassical revival. Seemingly not existing in the same category of contemporary as that of his peers, Finlay’s work requires a deeper exploration and understanding of what he is attempting to say. Not the type of show you simply walk in and out of quickly again having your daily fill of art, but it resonates within the mind and hours later the viewer is still contemplating the meaning of the work and coming to a new understanding of the power of art. Finlay’s work situates the viewer in a contemporary art setting by looking into a somewhat mysterious future by examining the past that was once seen as solid and unshakeable, which we can now see wasn’t that much different from our own world.
Definitions continues until 1 June. www.victoria-miro.com
© Ian Hamilton Finlay Five Finals (2001)