The art of Ian Hamilton Finlay is unusual for encompassing a variety of different media and discourses. Poetry, philosophy, history, gardening and landscape design are among the genres of expression through which his work moves, and his activities have assumed concrete form in cards, books, prints, inscribed stone or wood sculptures, room installations and fully realised garden environments. Common to all of Finlay's diverse production is the inscription of language - words, invented or borrowed phrases and other semiotic devices - onto real objects and thus into the world. That language inhabits, for Finlay, a material or real dimension gives rise to the two seemingly opposed but signal characteristics of his work.
Finlay's early experiments with concrete poetry were acutely sensitive to the formalist concerns (colour, shape, scale, texture, composition) of literary and artistic modernism. Finlay, a committed poet and student of classical philosophy, has also always recognised the power of language and art to shape our perceptions of the world and even to incite us to action. Fused in his work is thus a certain formalist purity and an insistent polemical edge, "the terse economy of concrete poetry and the elegant [and speaking] simplicity of the classical inscription." Formalist devices are themselves shown to be never without meaning, and they are ingeniously deployed by Finlay to arm his works with an ever more evocative content.