The Marfa Book Company’s spare, beautiful installation of works on paper by Ian Hamilton Finlay—a Scottish poet, writer, artist and noted gardener who died in 2006—creates an environment that encourages study and contemplation. Finlay’s works offer provocations both visual and literary, and — in conjunction with the exhibition — organizers Tim Johnson and Caitlin Murray published The Present Order, a collection of writings on Finlay. I recently spoke with Johnson, who explained his passion for the artist and poet’s work.
No Country for Old Interns: How did you first encounter Finlay’s work? What attracted you to it?
Tim Johnson: I was first introduced to Ian Hamilton Finlay’s work through an interest in concrete poetry, as Finlay was one of the principle poets involved in that movement. Concrete poetry is, fundamentally, a kind of poetry that treats the entirety of the surface on which a poem is printed or inscribed as an active element in its construction.
Finlay is also important to American poets in that he was one of the few people to publish the great American poet Lorine Niedecker during her lifetime. (His press, Wild Hawthorn, published her book My Friend Tree in 1961.)
Also, his experimental and international poetry periodical Poor.Old.Tired.Horse., which ran between 1962 and 1968, was exceptionally broadly conceived and much very good poetry appeared there. Also, its simple—I almost want to say “punk rock”—format appealed to me immediately upon discovering my first copy. (I was probably 18.)
It was only later that I learned of his other work, which is equally interesting, and also quite adventurous.
Why did you decide to exhibit his work in the Marfa Book Company gallery?
We decided to show the work here after I received an email from my friend, Emily Scarfe, asking if I was familiar with Finlay, because her stepfather, Stephen Scobie, a Canadian poet and scholar, had been of friend of Finlay’s and a collector of his work. I, of course, told her I was a fan, and asked if it might be possible to host an exhibition. Stephen agreed and we proceeded from there.
The show was long in planning because we wanted to honor the work. For us, people who are interested in small press publication, artist’s books, poetry and language in art, Finlay is one of the heroes, a key figure in all of those realms. Plus, his work is decidedly conscientious, so we wanted everything in the exhibition to be clearly presented, and it takes time to do that.
Additionally, Finlay’s visual vocabulary is fairly diverse and yet, overall, there is a continuity. We wanted to present works that would activate, through proximity, their relationships to each other.
Finlay’s work also raises a lot of difficult questions and we wanted to bring those into play. For example, it can be said that his work deals with versions of the pastoral, some of them lovely, others quite violent. We are reminded that one of the things we’ve cultivated in our culture is an extreme form of militarism and a respect bordering on worship of the instruments of violence.
This, it should be noted, is my reading. But, I think it’s there. Finlay also reminds us that revolutions, such as the French Revolution, which is deservedly admired, were not peaceful. It also resulted in the Terror. [French revolutionary Louis Antoine de] Saint-Just features rather prominently in our exhibit.
How did you go about producing the book that accompanies the exhibition?
We made the book in collaboration with our friend A. Flint Jamison . We decided early in the process that the show would feature no supplementary wall texts, but that we would include a table where people could see images of Finlay’s garden, Little Sparta, and also orient themselves, should they desire, in relation to the printed works. Subsequently, we had the crazy idea that we could gather work from people we admire whom we suspected of being interested in Finlay and publishing our own book. So we did. We wanted the book to maintain the adventurous spirit that characterizes Finlay’s book work. In retrospect, this was a pretty foolish move on our part. Why did we think we could make a book that was up to that standard? But, I think we made an interesting book. And, certainly, the contributions are excellent.
Really, the design elements of the book would take another several paragraphs to describe. Basically, the cover is digital camouflage for some reasons. Here’s a way of explaining it: Finlay said, “Some gardens are described as retreats, when they are really attacks.” We thought of this book as a very small, and poetic, attack. This is partly why there is little text on the exterior of the book, to better blend in and make a more successful attack. We also reproduced a number of the printed works in a signature of color plates, which are perforated to emphasize the ephemeral nature of the originals.
Also, of course, the book is titled The Present Order, which relates back to the camouflage and the perforation. Digital camouflage and digital book design being a part of the present order, of course.
The Present Order comes from a phrase by Saint-Just, which is also incorporated into a work by Finlay, which is in the show: “The present order is the disorder of the future.” It’s a work on paper. The words appear as though they were printed on stones. There is a dotted line around each stone (much like a perforation line). And instruction to cut the words out and arrange in order. This work exists in relation to an actual stone work of Finlay, where the words each appear on a separate full sized stone. (You see, we were also interested in drawing out the relationship between Finlay’s garden works and his mobile paper works…)
Copies of the The Present Order are available through the Marfa Book Company by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or by calling 432-729-3906. You may order the book online here.