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
Just folk: The Unthanks

music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne with his Screen Actors Guild award for Best Actor

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rowan Atkinson is bringing out Mr Bean for Comic Relief

TV
Arts and Entertainment

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
V&A museum in London

Art Piece taken off website amid 'severe security alert'

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

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

    Woman who was sent to three Nazi death camps describes how she escaped the gas chamber

    Auschwitz liberation 70th anniversary

    Woman sent to three Nazi death camps describes surviving gas chamber
    DSK, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel

    The inside track on France's trial of the year

    Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Dodo the Pimp, and the Carlton Hotel:
    As provocative now as they ever were

    Sarah Kane season

    Why her plays are as provocative now as when they were written
    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of a killing in Iraq 11 years ago

    Murder of Japanese hostage has grim echoes of another killing

    Japanese mood was against what was seen as irresponsible trips to a vicious war zone
    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea