Reviewed by Darryl Moore
John Dixon Hunt has established a niche for himself as a theorist who views gardens as places embodied with historic meaning and symbolic content. His writings, integrating classical and literary references and perspectives, have been orientated more toward the academic than the popular, with the consequence that the importance of his ideas is often lost on a wider public.
However, his latest foray into print addresses this situation, by presenting an accessible and thoughtful reading of the work of Ian Hamilton Finlay. To his stylistic credit, he successfully manages to do this in a manner sympathetic to Finlay’s own fragmentary modus operandi. Whilst other books on the subject have adopted factual and explanatory approaches, his is a more interpretative one, engaging subjective reflections with analytic research, all the while attempting to avoid imposing a definitive narrative on Finlay’s oeuvre.
Dixon Hunt presents a series of ‘unconnected thoughts’ and ‘detached sentences’ which aim to invoke Finlay’s sculptural interventions and interactions with the landscape as a dialectical series of attacks and retreats between culture/nature, individual/authority, modernism/classicism, visual/written and past/present. He suggests that the garden visitor encounters spaces full of doubt, and engages in a dynamic interplay between the concept, its material form, and situation in the landscape. Often this takes the knowing form of a pun on the written word and visual aspects of the location, which require a mental adjustment to fully appreciate, and which create layers of meaning, more or less obvious to the viewer, dependant upon their experience and knowledge. Dixon Hunt also recognises the importance of time and place to the garden visit, and the effect of novel impressions, gained with each repeated encounter, in revealing the subtleties of the works.
The use of language and choice of material for every specific location is viewed as a process of abstracting natural elements and concretising natural experience. They attempt to reveal the brute force of nature, and the interplay between the sublime and the sacred in Finlay’s re-reading of Arcadian aesthetics as a challenge to the complacency of many contemporary attitudes towards gardens.
Dixon Hunt’s meditations focus upon Finlay’s array of conceptual devises utilised in his textural works and landscape practice, such as emblems, excerpts, inscriptions and errata adjustments. Each is explained with reference to techniques derived from concrete poetry and to various garden projects, lucidly revealing some of the less obvious aspects inherent in the works. Little Sparta, regarded as Finlay’s most personal and realised artwork, is considered here in relation to other landscape projects such as Fleur de l’Air, Stockwood Park, Max Plank Institut and Kroller-Muller, with their differences and similarities compared and considered.
Dixon-Hunt is careful in his interpretation, to maintain a sensitivity towards the balance between references to the classical and the modern. The relationship between them is viewed as a productive antagonism, whereby Finlay’s Neo-Classicism is a form of critical modernity, not ironic historical pastiche, although Dixon-Hunt possibly fails to detect lurking within the works a dry cantankerous sense of humour, similar to that found in the writings of fellow Scot Alasdair Gray.
Obviously for Dixon-Hunt, the overlaid art and literary references of the works feed neatly into his theoretical views of gardens. Yet it should be remembered that this is a very particular approach to a very particular form of garden. As such its interpretations and implications are quite specific rather than inclusive or relevant to all gardens, but nonetheless he has created a highly illuminating insight into Finlay’s art and provided analytic tools for further appreciation and debate about symbolic gardens.
Darryl Moore Design blog
John Dixon Hunt