The World Has Been Empty Since the Romans 1985 is a long and extremely heavy stone sculpture that resembles the ruin of a classical frieze and hangs from a series of steel chains. The text of its title – ‘THE WORLD HAS BEEN EMPTY SINCE THE ROMANS’ – is inscribed across its front in a traditional-looking serif typeface. The sculpture is made from six pieces of Bath stone, which is a form of limestone, and the faces of the stones are quite smooth, but are marked by what look like signs of weathering. They have jagged tops, bottoms and sides and the inscribed text is often broken up by joins between the different slabs, as well as what look like missing sections of stone. There is no fixed height from which the work must be hung, so that in some exhibitions it has been presented well above head height and in others it has been suspended only a short distance from the ground. However, all of the stones are hung at the same level as each other every time it is installed.
The work was created in 1985 by the Scottish artist Ian Hamilton Finlay. From 1966 onwards Finlay’s studio was located in the Pentland Hills near Edinburgh, Scotland. The World Has Been Empty Since the Romans was realised with the assistance of letter-cutter and stonemason Nicholas Sloan, who was one of Finlay’s long-term collaborators. In a 2004–5 interview with the Tate conservation department Finlay discussed how the sculpture was produced: ‘I told [Sloan] what to do in a letter. The whole conversation was done by letters in which I explained my ideas’ (Finlay, conservation interview, May 2004–July 2005, Tate Conservation file, p.1).
The title of the sculpture, which refers to ancient Rome, is a quotation from a statement by Louis Antoine de Saint-Just (1767–1794), a military and political leader during the French Revolution (1789–99). Finlay’s sculpture captures the melancholy tone of Saint-Just’s sentence through its weathered, ruined appearance. The original quotation continues: ‘But the memory of the Romans fills it. They go on prophesying liberty.’ (See Finlay 2012, p.222.) Saint-Just was suggesting that the revolution might lead to the return of the glories and ideals of the Roman Republic, an idea which he used to justify mass executions during the revolutionary period. In Finlay’s sculpture, Saint-Just’s quotation seems to invite reflection on the mixture of progressive dreams and brutal repression which characterised the French Revolution.
Despite its ruin-like appearance, Finlay’s sculpture was in fact specially made in its present form. By giving the false impression of being old and broken, the work invites comparison with the frequent representation of ruined architecture in nineteenth-century Romantic painting, which displayed a strong and often melancholic nostalgia for the ancient world. The faux-classical frieze also makes reference to the neo-classical, revivalist art and architecture of nineteenth-century Europe, which is known to have particularly interested Finlay. This suggests another link with Saint-Just, since he and other leaders of the French Revolution were staunch advocates of neo-classicism, which became the dominant style in the visual arts while France was under their rule.
The World Has Been Empty Since the Romans is one of a number of seemingly ruined sculptures incorporating inscriptions made by Finlay during his career. Another of these sculptures – The Present Order 1983 – features the same Saint-Just quotation on what looks like a subsiding headstone. This earlier work is located in Little Sparta, a garden and large-scale artwork that the artist created in collaboration with his wife Sue Finlay from 1966 to 2006. With its great size and weight, The World Has Been Empty Since the Romans is a particularly monumental example of this body of sculptures.
This sculpture is also a significant example of Finlay’s interest in combining text with physical objects and designs. He began his career as a poet in the 1950s, and in the 1960s became increasingly fascinated by concrete poetry, a form of writing in which the layout and typography of the text are considered to be part of the writer’s work. This interest in the presentation of words in space led Finlay to create numerous text-based sculptures in which language and materials were made to work together.
Yves Abrioux, Ian Hamilton Finlay: A Visual Primer, Edinburgh 1985.
Nick Thurston, ‘Seeing Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Poetics’, BOMB Magazine, 10 December 2011, reproduced, http://bombmagazine.org/article/6985/, accessed 17 November 2014.
Alec Finlay (ed.), Ian Hamilton Finlay: Selections, Los Angeles and London 2012.
Supported by Christie’s.