Ian Hamilton Finlay: The Sonnet is a Sewing-Machine for the Monostich

30 March - 12 May 2007
Victoria Miro Gallery I


The Sonnet is a Sewing-Machine for the Monostich is the largest ever presentation of Finlay's rarely seen neon works, which date back to the early seventies and run parallel to his better-known inscriptions on stone. In his essay to accompany the exhibition Stephen Bann has noted: 'There can be no doubt that neon poems were an integral part of Finlay's oeuvre, and embodied some of his earliest intuitions about extending his poetic ideas beyond the printed page, as objects in the world.'  

The exhibition comprises two distinct bodies of work - in the upper gallery, a collection of neon works first exhibited in 1993 at the Crawford Arts Centre, St Andrews, Scotland and in the lower gallery neon works and wall texts relating to the French Revolution. The 'monostich' of the exhibition's title is a poem of one line, an uncommon form first widely used by the Russian poet Emmanual Lochac, who lived in France from 1894

Finlay's neon works in the upper gallery cast a reminder that words can also function as images, being composed as if in the artist's own hand. The brevity and verbal economy of the monostich compels and invites the viewer to impose their own interpretations on Finlay's work, which can often be understood on several levels - a riddle for the viewer to unravel. Finlay's simple, rural background is overlaid by his self-taught erudition - a voracious reader with an impressive personal library, Finlay discovered and took pleasure in a huge variety of historical figures, events and facts little known by others, and delighted in incorporating them in his work. The shortest of his neons, 'parheliacal marble' amply illustrates this, with his use of the unusual 'parheliacal' (the formal adjective derived from the Greek, describing sun dogs, the luminous spots in clouds caused by the sun's refraction through ice crystals). Juxtaposed with marble, the viewer is invited to imagine the effect as a marble statue shining in the Greek sun.

Poems that recur in other corners of Finlay's oeuvre also find themselves illuminated here: 'blue water's bark' proposes a kind of wordplay for deep water, or ocean-voyaging. Finlay intended the poem to reflect on the spelling of 'bark', its alternative literary spelling 'barque' (meaning boat) and lyrically, as the material that parallels the texture of rippled water. One's imagination is invited to see beyond the words to a blue-painted ship, the bark of a tree that became a ship, the blue sea.

A main theme running through Finlay's practice was the French Revolution, a key work of which was 'A View to the Temple', an installation of four guillotines exhibited in 1987 at Documenta 8, Kassel. The exhibition at Victoria Miro Gallery will include three seminal neons, 'Matisse Chez Duplay (unique in Finlay's neon works for its detail in opposition to the abbreviated form he uses elsewhere), 'Je Vous Salue Marat' and 'Ici on Danse'. 'Matisse Chez Duplay' describes Robespierre's room, which belonged to the humble cabinetmaker Duplay, in the words of Lamartine, in his 'History of The Girondists. 'Ici on Danse' celebrates the fall of the Bastille as described by Camille Desmoulins. 'Je Vous Salue Marat' is self-explanatory in its simplicity on one level, celebrating the life of the French Revolutionary Marat, but is also a play on the inscription 'Je Vous Salue Marie' in Notre Dame du Haut, the Chapel at Ronchamp in France.   

The Sonnet as a Sewing-Machine for the Monostich is conceived by Pia Maria Simig. Neons in collaboration with Julie Farthing.

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