Tate Britain's Duveens Galleries tend to offer a rather inhospitable environment in which to exhibit art – with all that vast, echoing, neoclassical space to contend with. Rather cleverly, though, the sense of grandiose emptiness is turned to the advantage of the initial work in this display of holdings by the late Ian Hamilton Finlay.
A monumental, cracked stone frieze bearing the words, 'The world has been empty since the Romans' is suspended by chains from the ceiling – a vast, solitary piece of signage that proclaims its message with intimidating authority. What the message means is more elusive. It turns out to be a French Revolutionary statement about freedom and terror – two opposing concepts which, it was theorised at the time, actually went hand in hand.
It was these sorts of unexpected conceptual junctions that fascinated Finlay throughout his career. Before he became an artist in the 1960s he published concrete poetry (where the printed text forms a picture). Two absorbing vitrines in the next gallery display paper works with similar elaborate arrangements of words across the page.
In his subsequent sculptures he continued to make words, quite literally, concrete. There's the name of a ship, 'Starlit Waters', with the wooden letters enmeshed in netting or, extending the neoclassical motif, the dozens of quotes and naval images carved in stone and set on plinths.
Yet, apart from that wonderful first gallery, the display here doesn't really do the works justice. Finlay's pieces are metaphors in material form – deliberate, concentrated, meditative, objective. But here they feel marginalised – literally pushed to the edges of a space that essentially functions as a thoroughfare.