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A Nautical Adventure into the World of Ian Hamilton Finlay

Although summer has long gone here in Edinburgh and the sun is starting to set far too soon, there will always be sunshine and salt breezes at the Marine | Ian Hamilton Finlay exhibition, open at the City Art Centre until 3 October. But out of the many themes prevalent in Finlay’s works, why the nautical theme? Stephen Bann, Emeritus Professor of History of Art and Senior Research Fellow at Bristol University, writes that the marine theme takes us back to ‘The Boy and the Guess’, one of Finlay’s earliest works that was published in 1958. It contains a riddle that is asked to a boy: “What is out there in the sunny bay that can be compared to a little pony?” Quite cleverly, the answer is found in a small fishing boat that ‘skipped away out to the open sea’.

Both a boat and a pony are free to roam into the lands of the unknown, and that is what seems to be explored in RUDDER. In this piece, Finlay plays with different colours and the spelling of the word ‘rudder’. The role of a rudder on a ship is to steer. By showing us the different colours and forms the word can take, Finlay invites us to take the rudder of our boats, of our life’s journey, and steer towards whichever direction we choose to go in life. This metaphor of taking control of our life’s choices is similarly reflected in one of Finlay’s earlier poems, Star/Steer.

A similar message seems to be shown in his other work, WINGS. Both the oars are engraved with the word ‘WING’ and arranged so that they look like wings on each side of the boat. In both his POEM/PRINT NO. 11 and POEM/PRINT NO. 14, he prints a detailed diagram of two boats. What is most exciting about boats is that they are on a journey, and the bow of a boat is always pointed to a certain direction, and the tides are leading the boat to a new location. Here, Finlay is perhaps portraying the famous words of Greek philosopher Heraclitus, “Everything flows.” 

Another brilliant wordplay is in FOR THE TEMPLES OF THE GREEKS…, a reference to German writer Hermann Hesse’s poem ‘Ode to Hölderlin’ where Hesse writes: “Sorrowfully burning for the blessed land of the past/For the temples of the Greeks/Our homesickness lasts forever.” In another card by Finlay published in 1981, Finlay includes two quotes, one of which is that of Claude Chimérique: “In the foreground of every revolution, invisible, it seems, to the academics, stands a perfect classical column.” In a world where people and opinions are polarised, Finlay’s piece seems to be a reminder that whether it be through a Doric, Ionic, Corinthian, or a Composite column, the Greeks still built their temples to last. In his print, all four types of columns coexist on one ship, heading towards the same direction. Perhaps, our homesickness then, is to achieve what the Greeks achieved: to build something together to last for the years to come. 

[Image: Ian Hamilton, Sails CN 16 1998
Image courtesy of the Estate of Iam Hamilton Finlay]