Ian Hamilton Finlay first came to prominence in the 1960s as one of Britain’s foremost concrete poets. He later extended his practice to include a wide range of materials, often combining words and objects.
His ideas were realized through such diverse forms as graphic work, sculpture, text pieces and, notably, his garden, Little Sparta, which he considered a 'Gesamtkunstwerke' – a total work of art – in which all aspects of his practice could interact with nature. Like much of his work, the garden of Little Sparta explores the contradictory and complex relationship between the wildness of nature and the attempts of culture to contain and control it. It has been described as the epicentre of his cultural production.
Although better known now as a sculptor than a writer, language remained a central concern. His work, often collaborative, is a unique blend of art and poetry. The sea was the subject of Finlay’s earliest printed works and sculptures, and it continued to be a dominant theme throughout his life. He viewed it as an example of nature’s power and problematic beauty.
The room installation Sailing Dinghy 1996 encapsulates the artist’s passion and affection for ships and the sea. It comprises a clinker-built boat, once sailed by Finlay himself, and a short poem. The boat’s parts –bow, sails, rudder and stern – are labelled with numbers one to six, which cross-refer to the poem painted onto the wall. The poem’s simple phrases evoke the power and movement of the boat at sea, encouraging the viewer to make a mental voyage, to be imaginatively transported from gallery to sea. Finlay’s dinghy, now static and landlocked, provides a contrast to this flight of imagination with its contrasting stillness and very physical presence within the gallery.