10 December 2008

Ronnie Duncan's Collection: Ian Hamilton Smith, Oleg Kudryashov and Rachel Whiteread

(these are notes and snippets of research from a talk I gave about an exhibition. I misplaced the second half of the notes, as I hand-wrote them silly me. Excuse the poor flow and the inconsistency here, as I say, they were just notes I used to deliver a talk from)

Ronnie Duncan is a collector of beautiful things. His main motive for collecting is to be surrounded by things that are pleasing to the eye. Both in his house and in his garden.

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He was introduced to Ian Hamilton Finlay by fellow collector and friend David Brown. In 1975 Brown encouraged a visit to ‘Little Sparta’ a classical garden near Edinburgh.

Ian Hamilton Finlay was born in 1925, during his younger years h served in the army and amongst other things worked as a shepherd. It is not surprising then that two very strong themes in his later work would be war and nature.

Hamilton Finlay was primarily a poet, and even up until his death he insisted that he be referred to as such. His first poetry collection was published in 1960, with very little acclaim from his home country audience.

In 1961 he co-founded he Wild Hawthorn Press, initially publishing the works of his peers, but then publishing his own work (such as cards, pamphlets, prints, posters, books and so on). Later Ronnie Duncan would by almost everything that the press printed.

The way Hamilton Finlay characterised his work when interviewed in 196 explains why his poetry evolved into a more physical form:

What you compose with is neither here nor there, you compose with words or you compose with stone, plants and trees, or you compose with events, the sheriff’s officer, or whatever. It is all a matter of composing and “order”’ (taken from his obituary in Art Monthly May 2006)

In other words, for Ian Hamilton Finlay, composition was key.

* * *

By moving on to “concrete poetry” IHF was extending the boundaries of poetry. Poems being engraved on stone seemed to represent the clash between nature and culture that seemed to fascinate him so much.

Little Sparta is likely to be IHF’s most well known and best loved work. In 2004 it was voted the nation’s greatest work of art by 50 leading Scottish artists.

IHF felt that whereas gardens were seen as a retreat, he wanted his gardens to become an attack. In a sense, perhaps nothing better represents the conflict or merging between culture and nature than a garden, which is essentially an area of controlled nature, cultivated for aesthetic purposes.

Here are some quotes about Little Sparta:

(again from Art Monthly May 2006)
The visitor, walking down its pathway is continuously ambushed by the evocative positioning of inscribed words, neo-classical architectural elements or sculptures conveying war and terror. For Finlay gardens were privileged places, and Little Sparta, consistently transformed over almost 40 years, was the realisation of an idealised space of radical thought.'

(by Guy Dammann from the Guardian Culture Vulture blog March 29 2006)
Whatever notion of beauty you have- your interests lying in typography, topiary or in modernist, as it were Spartan design- you’re likely to find it reflected in Finlay’s undulating masterpiece, one of the few artworks that both blooms and decays at the same time

(by Prudence Carlson on IHF’s official website)
“[…]a place provocative of poetic, philosophical and even political thought […] a sustained as well as highly sensuous poem…

It is clear that Little Sparta is not a deviation from poetry, but rather an extension.

* * *

The Anteboreum- a rare type of sundial where a shaft of direct sunlight reveals the hour, as opposed to the usual sundial where it is the shadow that shows the hour.

The Marquette sits in Ronnie Duncan’s bedroom window, overlooking its weather-beaten cousin in the garden.

* * *

Many of the themes in IHF’s stone-work are continued in his nautically themed poem-prints.

The fascination of war and nature continues. IHF plays on the name Rose for a ship, something so beautiful and natural being the name for something that was often used in war. A similar idea crops up in some of his poetry when he plays on the similarities between pansies and panzer tanks.

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