Great Works: The Present Order (1983, Ian Hamilton Finlay

Little Sparta, Lanarkshire

It used to be a rule of Western art that once a work was finished, it stayed finished. Occasionally it might need repairs or censorship, but the proper state of a painting or a sculpture was an unchanging state. It was no part of an artwork to be up for alteration. Please do not touch.

In the 20th century, the rule was changed. Dadaism in the 1920s, its revival in the 1950s and 1960s, introduced artworks that involved their own destruction or invited the viewer's intervention. Such works were obviously fragile, and they have fared in various ways: lost, reconstructed, preserved as untouchable relics. But there is another category: the hypothetically alterable artwork. It raises the possibility. You can find one at Little Sparta, the poetical/philosophical garden created by Ian Hamilton Finlay in Lanarkshire. It's a permanent work, but it asks us to imagine it changed – and with that, to imagine larger changes.

In one of the wilder parts of the garden, you come across eleven large blocks of stone lying on the ground. The Present Order is a sculpture conceived by Finlay and carved by Nicholas Sloan. It appears here in a photograph taken by David Paterson.

The blocks look like a ruin. They're fashioned to suggest the fragments of what was once a massive inscription. Each shattered piece has a single word carved in Roman capitals. The words are in English, but they're derived from a speech by the young French Revolutionary leader, the most fanatical of the Jacobins, Louis Antoine Saint-Just.

They read: "THE / PRESENT / ORDER / IS / THE / DISORDER / OF / THE / FUTURE / SAINT- / JUST". They are laid out in a 3-3-3-2 formation, as if arranged by a modern archaeologist, in what seemed the right sequence.

But as these words lie there, announcing revolution, they raise a question. Is their present order their correct order? Finlay made a print version of the work that makes this explicit. It shows a drawing of the eleven pieces, and beneath them the instruction: "Cut around outlines. Arrange words in order".

So try. Check the rough edges of these pseudo-fragments. They won't tell you. They're too knocked about. They aren't the pieces of a jigsaw that can be reassembled by shape. Therefore they must be reassembled by sense. And that proves tricky.

"The present order is the disorder of the future": this is a work that deals in memory and prophecy. Its words speak of the present and the future. Its classical lettering and broken stones speak of the past. It's a remote past, grandly authoritative, but lost, fallen or smashed into oblivion, out of which this sentence calls.

There's often pathos to the past's claims upon the future. Nothing makes the past seem so utterly past as when it tries to imagine the future – a future that is quite unknown to that past, though known to us who are that future. But The Present Order speaks of time so abstractly, it's not clear whether we should be looking back or looking onward to this future. Perhaps it's still in the future. Perhaps the present referred to includes our present. Perhaps Saint-Just's words are as relevant today as two centuries ago.

There's also a problem, though, with finding a message in the past. The sense we can make of the past depends on what makes sense now – which may not be what made sense to the past.

This work presents the riddles of history as a word puzzle. The past may never be able to know its future. The present may never be able to understand its past. These words, with their severe and urgent declaration, stare back at us as an enigma.

What can we make of them? What better sense can we make by rearranging them? "The present order is the disorder of the future." It's a dark saying: either, what now counts as order, will in the future be seen as disorder; or the present order will lead to future disorder. Make the obvious change, then – switch "order" and "disorder". "The present disorder is the order of the future". Again dark: what now seems disorder will be seen as a new kind of order; or, the present disorder will give birth to a future order.

The only sure answer to this is that we can't be sure. We don't get the message and the problem (the work implies) may be our problem. The fact that we do not know how to order these words is a sign that we are in disorder. Their reordering eludes us, forever or for the present.

It's also beyond our physical powers. The eleven pieces of this hypothetically changeable sculpture are literally too big to shift. You couldn't move them if you wanted. Or rather: they could only be shifted with a collective effort.

And so The Present Order lies there in the long grass, heavy with history, waiting to be found, waiting to be solved, waiting for its time – its potential alterability at one with its moral. Change the work! Change the world!

About the artist

Ian Hamilton Finlay (1925-2006) was known as a conceptual artist. He called himself a poet. His works always had words. He became the most original, inventive and diverse visual-verbal artist of his time. He was an ideas man. His works were all made in collaboration with executing artists, publicly credited. It's an art with an embracing world-view and many tones: grand, severe, praising, militantly ferocious, elegiac, witty, sweet, daft. It engages with wild nature and cultivation, warfare and architecture, the home, love, the sky, the sea, Classicism, Romanticism, Modernism, the politics of the French Revolution. Above all there is his neo-classical garden in Scotland. "Some gardens are described as retreats, when they are really attacks," goes his best-known aphorism. He was involved in a long running culture-war with his local authority to have his Garden Temple recognised as a religious building, not an art gallery. The gods are everywhere in his works. His vision was pagan, classical, tragic. His watchword was piety.

Arts and Entertainment
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

Arts and Entertainment
Madame Vastra and Jenny Flint kiss in Doctor Who episode 'Deep Breath'

Arts and Entertainment
Steve Carell in the poster for new film 'Foxcatcher'
filmExclusive: First look at comic actor in first major serious role
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Kingston Road in Stockton is being filmed for the second series of Benefits Street
arts + entsFilming for Channel 4 has begun despite local complaints
Arts and Entertainment
Led Zeppelin

Arts and Entertainment
Radio presenter Scott Mills will be hitting the Strictly Come Dancing ballroom
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

    ... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
    Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

    Europe's biggest steampunk convention

    Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

    The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor
    She's dark, sarcastic, and bashes life in Nowheresville ... so how did Kacey Musgraves become country music's hottest new star?

    Kacey Musgraves: Nashville's hottest new star

    The singer has two Grammys for her first album under her belt and her celebrity fans include Willie Nelson, Ryan Adams and Katy Perry
    American soldier-poet Brian Turner reveals the enduring turmoil that inspired his memoir

    Soldier-poet Brian Turner on his new memoir

    James Kidd meets the prize-winning writer, whose new memoir takes him back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
    Aston Villa vs Hull match preview: Villa were not surprised that Ron Vlaar was a World Cup star

    Villa were not surprised that Vlaar was a World Cup star

    Andi Weimann reveals just how good his Dutch teammate really is
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef ekes out his holiday in Italy with divine, simple salads

    Bill Granger's simple Italian salads

    Our chef presents his own version of Italian dishes, taking in the flavours and produce that inspired him while he was in the country
    The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

    The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

    If supporters begin to close bank accounts, switch broadband suppliers or shun satellite sales, their voices will be heard. It’s time for revolution