Ian Hamilton Finlay

Galerie Jule Kewenig

The classically elegant rooms of this gallery, formerly a moated castle, offered an ideal background for this installation of recent work by Ian Hamilton Finlay. In Osso, 1987, three huge white marble blocks lying on the floor appeared to have been violently wrested from their quarry, and only partially treated—one block bears an SS symbol. (When this piece was displayed in France, it triggered such indignation that the French minister of culture was forced to cancel a contract with Finlay for a monument commemorating the bicentennial of the French Revolution.) But Finlay’s goal in this piece is to show that violence and terrorism as practiced by the SS are inseparable from nature in its pure form, thereby contradicting Rousseau’s idealization of nature.

Nature as a ruthless struggle for survival versus culture as an attempt to deviate from nature in order to create an “abstract” civilized world: these are Finlay’s central themes. Perhaps this is why he is drawn to the somewhat unlikely subject of gardening, where a small-scale struggle between culture and nature is fought on a daily basis. More than anything else, however, he is fascinated by the French Revolution, as he has already demonstrated in numerous pieces such as Four Guillotines at Documenta 8 in 1987, for that was the historic moment when man first violently confronted the nature of history and became the actor of history.

Marat Assassiné (Marat assassinated, 1986) serves as a memorial to the French insurgent who fell victim to his own obsession with power. The work consists of three simple socles from David’s famous painting, a marble tablet declaring Robespierre the schoolmaster of democracy, and, facing it, a statue of Aphrodite wearing the red collar with which the revolution identified the relatives of the guillotined. The artist devoted an entire room to Bara, a 13-year-old boy who died as a martyr of the revolution. But all this does not constitute a pious monument. In his installations, Finlay questions our ideals of culture, freedom, and unity. He wonders if our values are motivated by certain natural elements that they reject—violence, terrorism, and intolerance.

That is why Finlay is fascinated by Saint-Just, whom he shows as Apollo enticed by Daphne, i.e., the revolution, in Seven Seeds of Revolution, 1986. Wasn’t Saint-Just seduced by the violence of nature when, at the National Convention, he rationalized the politics of the guillotine with these words: 'Nature follows its laws calmly and irresistibly; man is destroyed whenever he comes into conflict with them. . . . I now ask: Should spiritual nature be more considerate in its revolutions than physical nature?” For Saint-Just, Robespierre, and the five others who themselves were destroyed by the “laws of nature,” Finlay places flower pots with herb seeds on wooden pedestals.

Another piece in this show is a house construction, divided precisely into two halves and called Adorno’s Hut, 1987. One half consists of crude, untreated tree trunks; the other half is a modern steel structure. Theodor Adorno has written of a golden age when man was part of nature, contrasting it with the Age of Enlightenment, when man turned against nature. Adorno was also the one who recognized the unresolvable contradiction of this rebellion: “Any attempt at breaking the constraint of nature by breaking nature becomes all the more deeply subject to the constraint of nature. Such has been the course of European civilization.” Like Adorno, Finlay litigates against the Age of Enlightenment, citing the ideals that this enlightenment has forgotten.

In his works, Finlay uses a neoclassicist style, as a deliberate camouflage, as a simulation of an unattainable reconciliation between nature and culture. His recourse to the past demonstrates that such strivings emerge in art whenever mankind attempts a violent disruption of the natural course of history, whether in the French or Russian revolution or during the Third Reich. This does not make Finlay’s art any easier to digest.

Noemi Smolik

Translated from the German by Joachim Neugroschel.