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
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

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

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
News
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
people
News
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Arts and Entertainment
A life-size sculpture by Nick Reynolds depicting singer Pete Doherty on a crucifix hangs in St Marylebone church
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Escalating tension: Tang Wei and Chris Hemsworth in ‘Blackhat’
filmReview: Chris Hemsworth stars as a convicted hacker in Blackhat
Arts and Entertainment

Oscar voter speaks out

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars race for Best Picture will be the battle between Boyhood and Birdman

Oscars
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy), Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance)
tvReview: Wolf Hall
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Meighan of Kasabian collects the Best Album Award
music
Arts and Entertainment
Best supporting stylist: the late L’Wren Scott dressed Nicole Kidman in 1997
film
Arts and Entertainment
Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan as Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Mick Carter (Danny Dyer) and Peggy Mitchell (Barbara Windsor)
tv occurred in the crucial final scene
Arts and Entertainment
Glasgow wanted to demolish its Red Road flats last year
architecture
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.

    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003
    Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

    Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

    Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

    Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor
    Alexander McQueen: The catwalk was a stage for the designer's astonishing and troubling vision

    Alexander McQueen's astonishing vision

    Ahead of a major retrospective, Alexander Fury talks to the collaborators who helped create the late designer's notorious spectacle
    New BBC series savours half a century of food in Britain, from Vesta curries to nouvelle cuisine

    Dinner through the decades

    A new BBC series challenged Brandon Robshaw and his family to eat their way from the 1950s to the 1990s
    Philippa Perry interview: The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course

    Philippa Perry interview

    The psychotherapist on McDonald's, fancy specs and meeting Grayson Perry on an evening course
    Bill Granger recipes: Our chef recreates the exoticism of the Indonesian stir-fry

    Bill Granger's Indonesian stir-fry recipes

    Our chef was inspired by the south-east Asian cuisine he encountered as a teenager
    Chelsea vs Tottenham: Harry Kane was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope

    Harry Kane interview

    The striker was at Wembley to see Spurs beat the Blues and win the Capital One Cup - now he's their great hope
    The Last Word: For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?

    Michael Calvin's Last Word

    For the good of the game: why on earth don’t we leave Fifa?
    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?