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.

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