War, peace and the lure of the sea

BEIRUT: Standing in the near-empty entrance hall of the Sfeir-Semler Gallery, Pia Simig explains her approach to curating the work of Scotland’s most famous artist, Ian Hamilton Finlay.

Having worked with Finlay for 20 years before his death in 2006, at the age of 80, she simply follows his rules. No matter that neither artist nor curator had set foot in the gallery prior to opening night. Finlay long ago told Simig what to do and, more importantly, what not to do.

Perhaps it’s this precision concerning the deployment of his work, as much as its creation, that allows such a strong sense of the man to permeate the halls of the gallery, though he’s been dead some eight years.

Born in Nassau in 1925 to Scottish parents, Finlay returned to Scotland as a child. He joined the British Army in 1942, and after the war began working as a shepherd, reading voraciously to feed his interest in philosophy, and writing poetry and plays.

In the 1960s, he began experimenting with concrete poetry – in which the typographical arrangement of the words is as crucial to conveying meaning as the words themselves. It was a form Finlay defined not as visual, but as silent poetry.

Upon entering this show, the artist’s Middle East debut, visitors are greeted by his flawless combination of visual and verbal lyricism.

The wall painting “Mare Terra” (sea earth) covers the large expanse of wall facing the gallery entrance. The Latin words – “mare” inscribed in blue, “terra” in yellow – are painted next to two bisecting lines in the same colors.

To the left of this cross, which resembles a compass rose, a series of vertical yellow lines are partially undercut by another series of horizontal blue ones. Each varies slightly in length, allowing Finlay to evoke the organic movement of waves in the perfect rigidity of his grid.

It was from this piece – which successfully unites so many of Finlay’s motifs – that gallerist Andrée Sfeir-Semler and Simig decided to take the name for this show. It seemed fitting, Simig explains, given Beirut’s coastal location and the ambiguity of the territory between land and sea, the philosophical resonance of this ever-shifting line.

To the right of the entrance lie further examples of Finlay’s poetry. Among them is a tapestry bearing the famous “Star/Steer,” and the beautiful “Ring of Waves,” inscribed in gold on a sheet of glass.

“ring of waves

row of nets

string of lights

row of fish

ring of nets

row of roofs

string of fish

ring of light.”

In these 24 words, Finlay evokes a cyclical story, a fisherman’s dawn ’til dusk, weaving his own net, upon which viewers can endlessly embroider variations of the tale.

Enter the next room, and Simig begins to introduce darker, more complex themes.

Organized in collaboration with the Estate of Ian Hamilton Finlay, “Terra Mare” includes tapestries, neon installations, sculptures and vases, framed silkscreens and lithographs and poems – poems painted on walls, etched on glass, engraved in wood and stone and embroidered in fabric.

Finley frequently returned to words over the decades, exploring how their effect was altered by each new material.

Sfeir-Semler, who has represented Finlay at her Hamburg gallery since 1990, says she chose to bring his work to Lebanon this year because of its thematic content. As visitors move through the exhibition, the contemporary relevance and universality of Finlay’s work gradually makes itself known.

“Terra Mare” is not an easy show to digest.

Rooted as it is in a love of 18th-century neo-classicism (a whitewashed, “purist” take on the garish paint and pagan chaos of the Greeks and Romans), an appreciation of natural beauty and a love of fishing boats and the sea, Finlay’s work pits these elements against the bleaker topics of war – and its relationship to peace – and the pitfalls of the revolutionary spirit.

A fixation on the French Revolution makes itself known in the second room, where Finlay’s lithograph after Anselm Kiefer, depicting “the women of the revolution” as wildflowers, hangs next to a flower stand bearing the plants themselves in ceramic pots.

Based on sculptures by Italian baroque sculptor and architect Gian Lorenzo Bernini, the wall painting “Apollo and Daphne” depicts Apollo following the fleeing Daphne. A commentary on the French revolution, the painting is flanked by two painted plaques.

To the left is an account of the chase -- Apollo driven by love, Daphne by fear. To the right, Finlay has altered the words of the text to reflect the dangers of the revolutionary desire for a virtuous republic when they spiral out of control, the pursuer losing sight of his ideals in the rigor of the struggle.

The selection of work on show in “Terra Mare” aims to highlight Finlay’s interests in the knife-edge relationship between nature and culture, terror and virtue. Works like this lend themselves to regional readings. Yet Finlay’s ability to spot beauty in the everyday also shines through in pieces like “Glade/Grove,” two stone markers inscribed with the definition of the words, and his series of silkscreen prints capturing the knot patterns on the sails of local fishing boats.

Drawing attention to vanishing ways of life and environmental destruction, these works retain an intrinsically British flavor while provoking broader reflection.

Finlay’s work, which links so strongly to nature, is here displayed in an indoor setting, the antithesis of the natural surroundings that frame his famous garden of sculptural poems, “Little Sparta.”

Located at a farm called Stonypath, close to Edinburgh, this is where the agoraphobic Finlay spent most of his time. For close to 30 years, he barely left the confines of his garden, entrusting the fabrication of his ideas to trusted craftsmen – whom he insisted on crediting for their work. Before Simig began curating his shows, Finlay’s wife Sue did so, acting on the artist’s detailed instructions.

With its focus on the French Revolution, the clash of classicism and modernism and the legacy of the First and Second World Wars, Finlay’s work may sound bleak. The exhibition is anything but, mitigated by the artist’s subtle sense of humor and the compelling simplicity of his designs, deployed with understated balance in rooms that encourage reflection.

Some knowledge of classical history, the world wars and the French Revolution will aid in ingesting the concepts behind Finlay’s work, but it’s by no means a necessity.

It would be easy to spend hours fretting over how to decipher the artist’s intent, how to reconcile his peaceful, pastoral celebrations of nature with the darkness of his war-themed works.

The enduring impression of “Terra Mare,” however, is not intellectual. Finlay was many things, but he never forgot that art goes hand-in-hand with beauty. It is this overriding aesthetic lyricism that in the end ties the work here together.

Ian Hamilton Finlay’s “Terra Mare” is up at Sfeir-Semler Gallery in Karantina until November 1. For more information, please call 01-566-550.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 12, 2014, on page 16.




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