At the core of Finlay’s oeuvre is the word – written, pencilled, typed, engraved or as neon sign – through short sentences they reveal an ability to wryly abstract complex thoughts into a few words. Using philosophy, history, myths and their characters, over almost forty years he developed an ambiguous body of work of the purest conceptual kind. Exploring concrete poetry, in which the shape of the words is as important as their literal meaning, Finlay’s enigmatic works question fundamental Western cultural values through constructs stemming from Ancient Greece, World War II and the French Revolution, amongst other eras. The latter became a particularly strong influence on him; his 1987 guillotine installation ‘A View to the Temple’ was critically acclaimed at Documenta 8 in Kassel, and thereafter the guillotine became a recurrent motif in his iconography.
In the mid 1960s, Finlay moved to a patch of land 50 kilometres away from Edinburgh, Stonypath, that he over the next decade transformed into ‘Little Sparta’ – a large neo-classical garden populated by sculptural poems surrounding his home. The park embodies his singular creative approach, as he staged the entire landscape to reflect his literary sensibility. It symbolises his love of nature and his fascination for antiquity, making it the perfect place for his works carved in stone and wood – carefully displayed in the entire grounds.
Outside Scotland, Finlay’s work is on permanent display in the garden of the Max-Planck Institute, Stuttgart, Germany (since 1975); at Skulptur Projekte, Münster, Germany (1987); at Stockwood Park, Luton, England (1991); Finlay Park, Grevenbroich, Germany (1995); the Serpentine Gallery, London, England (1998) and the Park Güell, Barcelona, Spain (1999), amongst others. Finlay was appointed honorary Commander of the British Empire in 2002.