Alec Finlay & Hannah Imlach: Floers

Publication: The Times.  
June 2017

As part of a residency organised by Dunbar-based North Light Arts, poet Alec Finlay and artist Hannah Finlay present words and sculpture in a sensitive, inspiring response to the eastern coastal fringe of the UK.

“The sea is once again a theme for our time. Our relationship to the coast is changing as sea levels rise, storms worsen and the promise of marine renewables appears on the horizon, Floers bodes these inshot and ootshot tides of coastal culture, past present and future,” say the artists. Inherent in this statement is the idea dialect can form and inform majority language. Floers, a word laden with suggestions of ebb and flow, is one such.

Finlay (who read the opening) is a collector of words, an activist and a green thinker who is fast forging a new theory that embraces the ecology of human language, natural ecology and human creativity in the form of renewable energy technologies.

It’s a complex set of ideas. At its centre is the notion that the demise in the number and complexity of human languages is mirrored by the decline in non-human species and the degradation of the environment.

Finlay suggests, intriguingly, that the green movement and the renewed interest in  minority languages and dialectal forms is part of the same thrust against what he calls ‘general English’, with all its martial and industrial connotations – (for this read military general and companies such as General Electric).

Finlay scoured the eastern coasts looking for what he calls the ‘archaeology of language’. The way in which place names, river names and other topographies indicate the layered nature of human presence.  Finlay’s poems are condensed repositories of meaning and ideas, in sequence they move from north to south — from Shetland to Suffolk — embracing the uniqueness of linguistic form they find on the way.

One poem plays on the etymology of the name of Stroma, meaning “isle of the stream” (ða strummerbeuys   in ða harbour/ beaten time on ða quoy   oweranower). Here, they find their way into a gallery setting in a limited series of wooden plinths, engraved with language fragments; yetts, minnmouth,

Hannah Imlach’s research into the geology and marine ecology of the Dunbar coast has resulted in a number of sculptural forms. One, which takes the form of a wooden hexagon, itself made from a series of triangles, originally floated in a small circular rock pool, gently turning in the wind. 

The rock pool was in fact created in the Carboniferous era by the root ball of a mangrove-like tree, lepiradendron. Imlach’s sculpture suggests a cross section of the tree, as well as geological time.  Lepiradendron’s modern descendent, Lake Quillwort, itself floats in a small indention on the sculpture.

There are a few gripes here (to borrow one of the show’s terms) – one is that a closer collaboration between the lead artists might have produced interesting results; another is the rather thin presence of physical work in what is, admittedly, a limited and limiting gallery space.