Peter Hill

The Albury Wodonga Superfiction 1993

Collaboration Peter Hill and J.J. Voss (Photographer)


Ian Hamilton Finlay

Ian Hamilton Finlays’ creation of The Saint Juste Vigilantes and his battles with both the Hamilton Rates authorities and the French government were explored in an interview with Peter Hill in Studio International, No 1004, 1983 (London)

Ian Hamilton Finlay – Spartan Defence

Little Sparta, Stonypath, Dunsyre, Lanark Scotland


Dear Peter Hill,

Official S-J V communiqué has gone to you in a separate envelope (with other material).

Here is the long-delayed material – photos, colour slides, etc

A progress report would be cheerful.

Also enclosed is up-to-the-minute letter from the Wadsworth Athenaeum, suggesting Sixth Fleet may be sent.

Rumour has it that a special guard has been placed on my stone relief in the Scottish N Gallery of Modern Art. Try to find out about this.

No attempt* is to be made to remove works from The Tate.



*by S-J Vs

Raspberry Republic

The “other envelope”, mentioned above, contained the final stages of a correspondence Ian and I had been conducting by mail for some weeks. This was eventually published as a ‘conversation’ in Studio International. If some questions appear to go off at tangents and seem ‘unconversational’ this is symptomatic of the nature of interviews conducted by mail.

Peter Hill: Before we speak about the problems you have had to face over the past year or so it might be worth speaking about the philosophy behind your garden temple at Little Sparta. As one of the most beautiful collaborations between man and nature that I have ever seen, I wonder how it all began?

Ian Hamilton Finlay: Every question can be answered on different levels, or, that is, has a number of different answers. As a building the garden temple began as a cow byre which we converted into a gallery and then, over a period, into a garden temple, or as we at first described it ‘Canova-type temple’ – referring to the temple built by the Italian neo-classicist. This was not to equate our garden temple with Canova’s temple but to explain it by means of a precedent: a building which housed works of art but which did not present itself specifically as an ‘art gallery’. But in another way one could say that our garden temple began because we had a garden, and we have a garden because we were given a semi-derelict cottage surrounded by an area of wild moor land. This moor land represented a possibility, and produced our response. (I say ‘our’ to include Sue Finlay who has been, from the beginning, my collaborator on the garden).

PH: For over a year you have been engaged in battle with the Hamilton Rates Authorities. How did this begin, and is there an end in sight?

IHF: Our battle is not with the Hamilton Rates Authorities but with Strathclyde Region, of which the Hamilton authority is a minor detachment, taking its orders from above. The dispute began when the Region withdrew the discretionary rates relief on our building, initially justifying this on the grounds that we had no Scottish Arts Council grant and were unknown: ‘No one here has heard of you.’ Subsequently, the dispute became a War, a term I use to acknowledge the ‘limitless’ aspect of what has been happening, the absence of law (legality) as a fixed point in the Region’s thinking, the use of force, the refusal of discussion from the Region’s bureaucrats. As you know, the Saint-Juste Vigilantes have removed two stone reliefs of mine from the Scottish Arts Council’s public collection, and the names of the guilty (in the Little Spartan War) are being added to these as is an inscription. This inscription reads ‘EVENTS ARE A DISCOURSE’. Now, in a civilised society such a ‘discourse’ when it has gone on for a long time  and contains disorderly and               aspects, (in this case the use of the Sheriff Officer and the police, the Saint-Just Vigilante ‘commando type’ counter-attack on the SAC’s Charlotte Square HQ, the confrontation between the Region and the US State Department and therefore – implicitly – the US Sixth Fleet, etc.) would naturally, by a general agreement or desire, become a verbal discourse. But discussion is excluded (as I have said) by the region’s bureaucrats. And events are a discourse for a few people only; generally speaking they remain emblematic, obscure – emblems without their accompanying commentaries, which should be supplied by the culture, the press, and the critics. As you know, there has been a total absence of comment from the Scottish art critics. One has to say that there is a deliberate refusal to look at the content of the conflict and to bring that into consciousness (on all sides) to resolve the dispute. The War is simply the mode of utterance of a barbaric society which won’t speak to itself.

PH: Over the past year you have invoked the help of the Saint-Just Vigilantes. Who are they and how have they helped you?

IHF: The Saint-Just Vigilantes began as an entirely imaginary organisation, invoked in the prose commentary on one of my pieces in the exhibition – in collaboration with Ian Appleton – ‘The Third Reich Revisited’. The complete version of this exhibition will be shown at the Southampton Civic Art Gallery during 1984. (The original showing was at the Tartar Gallery, Edinburgh, in 1982). In one of the sequences , the ‘scenario’ assumes an Iranian-type revolution, leading to a process known as ‘Desecularisation’; the Scottish Arts Council HQ, and Charlotte Square itself, are thrown (as it were) to the corrective forces of the Imperialist Ecology – in short, they are taken over by pine trees and foxgloves; but the verbal commentary explains that the original sacking of the SAC was accomplished by the ‘Ayatollah Aesthetes’ and the ‘Saint-Just Vigilantes’ (two groups, it is clear, with a decent dislike of democratic pluralist state-aided art). Subsequently it was decided – who knows exactly how – that the Saint-Just Vigilantes should have an actual existence. Appropriately, their first appearance was in a demonstration which took place outside the SAC HQ in the autumn of 1982. Now, Saint-Just has been called ‘a thinker of actions’ and action is indeed the basis of the S-J Vs: they have discovered themselves (their identity) in action; their leaders have merged in the course of action. There is no list of members, and there is no list of rules saying what an SJ-V is. Yet, the S-J Vs are undoubtedly an organisation  in so far as it is the role of an organisation to have aims and to have the capacity to carry them out in a deliberate way. As you know, the works stolen from our garden temple by the Region are now in the vault of some unnamed bank; amusingly, several people (including one newspaper features editor) have seriously asked me why the SJ-Vs don’t identify the bank and carry out a raid to recover the works. Such is the mythological identity of the S-J Vs.

PH: Could you describe the First Battle of Little Sparta and your subsequent encounters with Sandy Walker, the Sheriff’s Officer?

IHF: It is impossible to describe the First Battle of Little Sparta as history has not yet decided what actually took place. The Monument (bronze and brick) will be erected in the Spring of this year, at what was ‘Checkpoint Sandy’ – Little Sparta’s Southern Frontier for that day. Poetry Nation Review’s extensive photo-documentary on the Battle begins with a quotation from Gratien’s Introduction to Saint-Just’s Oeuvres Choisies: ‘Giving oneself upto this sculpture presupposes a fundamental lack of respect towards what is considered to constitute reality.’ This could define the Battle as a kind of ‘heroic’ extension of the Gilbert and George mode. Alternatively, one knows the ‘sculpture’ to which Saint-Just ‘gave himself up’.  To adapt Marianne Moore’s famous definition of poetry , this was not ‘an imaginary garden with real toads’ but a real garden, and not with imaginary but real Police. In his Despatches from the Little Spartan War (a chronicle of the War composed in episodes), Patrick eyres says of ‘4th February 1983’, ‘Choreographed with military precision, art confronted political reality and, in triumph, captured the imagination of the public…icy, bleak dawn reveals defence in depth aside the single approach…Checkpoint Sandy, named in honour of the Sheriff Officer Alexander ‘Sandy’ Walker, stands before the bridge. YOU ARE NOW ENTERING LITTLE SPARTA warns the red and white counterweight barrier reminiscent of the Berlin Wall. The Checkpoint is covered by a camouflaged Mk. IV Panzer hull down to enfilade. Minefields stretch as far as the eye can see. Two flags rustle in the morning air. The Red Cross locates the Casualty Clearing Station and offers safety to neutrals…’

One could describe the Battle as allegorical – that is as , as a dramatic allegory of the fact that ideas were in conflict; but one cannot describe as merely allegorical an event in which the presence of the actual was more obvious than the presence of the idea.

PH: How do you feel the Scottish Arts Council has emerged from the whole situation, and following on from that do you have any strong feelings about the support you have had, and have not had, from various quarters?

IHF: The Scottish Arts Council is a public body with a legal charter, and this charter unambiguously sets it out as an object of the Council that it should (I quote) ‘develop and improve the knowledge, understanding, and practice of the Arts…’ and ‘advise and cooperate with Departments of our Government, local authorities, and other bodies on any matters concerned whether directly or indirectly with the Arts.’

In so far as the war may be considered as a rates dispute, it hinges on the nature of the disputed building. As is well known the SAC has consistently refused to advise the Region as to whether it considers the building to be a garden temple, or not. Therefore, the SAC have not acted in terms of its own legal charter. In this, it obviously has the support of its various committees – Literature Committee, Art Committee and so on. Clearly, officials and committee members who cannot accept the legal basis of the organisation should not be part of the organisation. Moreover, apart from the question of the building (temple or not), there are the serious questions concealed in the rating dispute. These cannot be separated from the ‘knowledge, understanding, and practice of the Arts.’; yet the SAC has persistently set them aside, and those on its committees who have been approached by members of the public, in correspondence, have refused to discuss them. As for the question of support ‘from various quarters’, I do have strong feelings, not about the having or not having support, but about the deliberate refusal of the culture – by which I mean the art critics, the art editors, the gallery directors, the artists (etc.) – to try to look seriously at the implicit and general (not particular, not financial) questions involved. Scottish art critics and art editors have carefully distanced themselves from the press reporting of the War. The culture has behaved as if its existence is something entirely separate from what actually goes on. This is how the Greeks understood Barbarians – people who are unable to discuss.

PH: One of your short stories, The Money, describes the problems faced by an artist attempting to claim social security benefit. To what extent do you feel the state should support the artist?

IHF: The story is not about the problems of an artist on social security but about the contrast between a naïve aspiration towards objectivity and a social temporising. The question of the extent to which the state should support the artist, cannot be seriously considered apart from the questions of the nature of art and the nature of the state. For example, I have just said ‘state’ with a small ‘s’ when it is perfectly possible to have States with a capital ‘S’; and though the Arts Council Charter uses ‘Art’ with a capital ‘A’, it should really – where the Arts Council is concerned – be used with a small ‘a’, the Arts, or arts, being regarded by the Arts Council as somewhere between a tourist attraction and a social service of a less essential sort. If anyone doubts this, let him or her consider the typical statement quoted in The Scotsman: ‘We want to see Scottish Opera providing a reasonable service of opera within Scotland within the funds available.’ This is Mr h McCann, Deputy Director of the Scottish Arts Council; the incredible thing is not that he said this, but that it is quoted without comment by the newspaper’s Arts Editor and will be read as a reasonable statement on an aspect of the arts. ‘We want to see the Scottish Gas Board providing a reasonable service of gas within Scotland within the funds available.’ The fact is, that it is the ‘pluralist democracies’ – the states with a small ‘s’ which have reduced the art critic, art editor (etc.), to functionaries of the state. And the so-called ‘avant-garde’ is simply democratic state art. What I am saying is, that your question cannot be answered (just now) because it conceals too many other questions; and these are the questions which there is a general agreement – general as regards the Arts Council, the artists, the press, the culture as a whole – to suppress. Inadequately, one can say that there is a total and as yet unacknowledged contradiction between the idea of pluralist democracy and the state-aided art. And that this contradiction reveals itself in the characteristic feeling of an absence of necessity in exhibitions today.

PH: What are the major influences behind your work and how, once these bureaucratic interruptions are over, do you see your work progressing

IHF: The ‘bureaucratic interruptions’ are part of my work, in the sense that they arise from the nature of my work, and are not resolved because the culture is unable to move from the incoherent or emblematic statement of the event (as such), to the conscious statement , in terms of thought. I am interested, therefore, in changing the culture.

Till one actually does this, one is merely challenging it. I am extremely concerned with the details of Art – that things should be properly and professionally done: at the same time, I am personally impatient of the categories of  ‘artist’, ‘poet’, ‘sculptor’, ‘gardener’ and so on.: these are useful and essential categories but I see that gardening, for instance, easily passes into politics – and this is factually confirmed by the history of gardening, as witness Stowe, or Girardin’s Ermenoville (where Rousseau died); it is in this perspective that I regard my Five Columns for the Kroller-Muller or Corot-Saint-Just.

PH: Your work unites language and image, or language and matter, in a very precise way. Do you see the two as indivisible?

IHF: My relation with language is extremely difficult. I have never understood the ‘easy’ relation with language of other (present day) Scottish writers. Language is an aspect of being, and as there is no single kind of being (qualitatively speaking) so there is no single ‘being of language’. I understand language (in my work, as opposed to correspondence, casual conversation, and so on) as an effort to find a mode of language which is true to a relevant mode of being. In fact (practically speaking) , it always turns out that the temporary resolution of the language difficulty occurs through a temporary intuition of a suitable form. The influence of my work is the Western Tradition (unacknowledged, as one knows, by Strathclyde Region, which is in essence one of the most barbarous and backward states in the USSR).

I am particularly interested in the Pre-Socratic Greeks. And for some time I have felt inspired by the neoclassical triumvirate of Robespierre, Saint-Just, and J-L David. These three created that astonishing idealist pastoral, The French Revolution (whose Virgil was Rousseau). Presumably my work will ‘progress’ towards my being in prison, unless the necessity of revolution (a return to Western Traditions) is understood first.

PH: An article written by Patrick Eyres entitles ‘The Third Reich Revisited’ published in Cencrastus magazine focuses on an exhibition of your work held at the Tartar Gallery, Edinburgh. What were the influences behind this body of work?

IHF: ‘The Third Reich Revisited’ was The Little Spartan War in an earlier form. It was – is – an attempt to raise (in a necessarily round-about-way) the questions which our culture does not want to put into idea-form. The exhibition consists of drawings and commentaries. Most of the drawings are of buildings, some imaginary, some real (or some which were real in Hitler’s time). Likewise, the commentaries include invented and actual history, used in such a way that one can’t be sure what is ‘true’ and what is not. For example, one drawing shows a set of my sundials on the outer wall of Speer’s Zepplinfield (scene of the Nazi rallies). The sundials are invention (it is necessary to say this because one or two people actually thought I had created sundials for the Zepplinfield),  while the commentary contains a quotation from Speer, concerning the sundials – not (as you might think) another invention, but Speer’s comment to me on the drawings (on which I had asked his opinion). This mixture of the real and the invented is important because it gives a kind of pressing quality to the projects; they are not mere mythology (far less whimsies); and they are therefore related to events – things which happened, or might happen: and after a time the exhibition seemed to extend itself, as it were, into The Little Spartan War. In the case of the War, the position is reversed; instead of drawings and commentaries which might have been events, one has events which might turn out to be Art (except the Police and Sheriff Officers are not a normal ‘art content’); the similarity lies in the fact that both the exhibition and the War are a kind of circumlocution of incoherence, a pun or play on unidentified ideas – which is just how Robert Cockroft sees his long poem (Gritstone Upon Granite) on The First Battle of Little Sparta: ‘…Where the four champions (led by metaphor)/ Rode out, I sat in spirit and pun/In the Red Cross Minor Traveller…’ (The Minor Traveller was the ambulance which attended the Battle.) The War had produced a quantity of art; what it has not yet produced (in Britain as opposed to Europe) is serious, didactic thought on its causes – the chief of which is, that where the arts once overlapped with Religion, they now overlap with tourism and entertainment, and there is no form or mode for the non-secular in our society.

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