If approaching Edinburgh’s ‘Modern Two’ from behind, you might notice the word ‘TEMPLE’ cast on the carpark wall in bronze. Stood outside, still in the carpark, you might stop despite the rain and read the definition that accompanies this word:

n. marble edifice, a veined edifice; the seat or summit of reason. It is certain that TEMPLES may be of great Use for stirring up Men to Piety, by filling their minds with Delight, and Entertaining them with Admiration of their Beauty. Leon Battista Alberti: Ten books of Architecture.

You may already be filled with delight or may have paused to admire the building’s beauty. You might even believe that before you stands such a ‘TEMPLE’, that Modern Two is “a kind of temple of learning”, as the notes to this piece on the Scottish National Galleries website claim.

In all likelihood, however, you will miss the other five of Ian Hamilton Finlay’s Six Definitions – ‘GROVE, ‘SHADOW’, ‘PEACE’, ‘HORIZON’, and ‘SHEEP’ – which adorn the other side of the wall. Each formulated in this way, with n. for noun followed by a short ‘definition’ and a quotation using the noun defined, these plaques have weathered rain and exhaust fumes since 2001 – and offer no visible attribution to Finlay.

Another piece within the Six Definitions, a work interrogating the use, the reception, and the geographies of words, is ‘SHADOW’:

n. the hour-hand. See over there – the rooftops of the farms are already putting up their evening smoke and SHADOWS of the mountain crests are falling further out. Virgil: Eclogues.

Cast in the same bronze as ‘TEMPLE’, ‘SHADOW’ and the other definitions can only be seen when you turn your back to Modern Two: they can only be seen, as the Galleries website claims, when you ‘look out over the Gallery grounds’ or, more specifically, the carpark. The quotation from Virgil demands that you ‘see over there’ to your surroundings, and that you place the words in your context: you are invited to look out into the world, the supposed ‘temple of learning’ out of sight behind you.

Fundamentally, Finlay’s Definitions plays on the distinction between the definite and indefinite articles. To think that ‘the hour-hand’ provides the strict definition of ‘SHADOW’ would be erroneous, as much as, taking another example, the definition of ‘GROVE’ is not exactly ‘an irregular peristyle’. If Finlay’s are not the only definitions of these words, they are definitions nonetheless: his work ironically prises open the semantic limitations which definitions provide, turning a word’s definite meaning into something looser, freer, more poetically versatile.

The philosopher, Jean-Luc Nancy, claims that the maintenance of this unruly openness is the central function of art and literature (a generic distinction, incidentally, that Finlay’s oeuvre unremittingly undermines). With an obscurity typical of ‘continental’ philosophy, Nancy argues that art (and literature), resisting signification’s hypostatisation, unties and leaves untied the ‘(k)not’ of sense. In other words, art functions as a space that continually defies the often politicised imposition of a fixed meaning. For me, Finlay’s project is similar. Through their playful redefinition, Finlay makes indefinite the meanings of these words: he leaves them, and the work itself, in a condition of ambiguity which frustrates any attempt at their political appropriation.

Returning to ‘TEMPLE’, wandering back down the steps to look up, once more, at Modern 2, you might think that this focus on ambiguity is misguided. You are confronted with a specific, physical description of a temple: ‘marble edifice, a veined edifice; the seat or summit of reason.’ But if you know anything about Finlay’s life and work, you might remember his vehement opposition to institutions of art. Perhaps you recall his 1982 work, Death to the Arts Council, which reads ‘MORS CONCILIO ARTIUM’. In this context, the laudatory tone with which the National Galleries hope you read ‘TEMPLE’ – as describing Modern 2 before you – might appear unlikely, even dishonest. The separated, severed, broken column accompanying Finlay’s definition advances this ambiguity: it brings into the work a faint air of death, of obsolescence, of ruined grandeur.

The Definitions make me think of my favourite quotation from Finlay, from his Detached Sentences on Gardening:

Sundials only appear to tell the time; they tell old cottages, silence, cumulus clouds, elm trees, steeples, and moss. Likewise, weathercocks tell forests, bird flocks, scarecrows, seaports and ships.

Here, Finlay elucidates a provocation implicit within his Definitions, and within his entire oeuvre – from his poetic garden, Little Sparta, to his earliest ‘concrete’ poems. This is the idea that the work of art – the sundial, the sculpture, the inscription – never stands solitarily in its meaning or beauty. Rather, for Finlay, the work enrols its environment in its production of its sense. Sundials, before they ‘tell the time’, draw in and construct a relationship with all that surround them – the sun, the weather, silence. In the same way, the Definitions enlists and ‘tells’ the features of the Gallery’s grounds. That imperative found in ‘SHADOW’, ‘see over there’, functions as a signpost, as a gesture to a world that populates the space beyond the gallery: the carpark and its cars, tourists, the bricks in the wall, cigarette butts in the gravel, planes excreting vaporous trails above, the trees and houses on the horizon.

‘HORIZON’, incidentally, is another of the words defined:

HORIZON n. an explication. The first range of hills that encircles the scanty vale of human life is the HORIZON for the majority of its inhabitants. Coleridge: Biographia Literaria.

What Finlay’s Six Definitions really defines is a broader horizon. In their semantic ambiguity and their gestures to the world beyond the gallery, these definitions challenge the distinctions and hierarchies between art and life, between the propriety of institutionalised art and its ragged, unkempt outside, between words’ dictionary definitions and their placed, contextualised usage. In a word, rather than offering an obsequious panegyric to this avowed ‘summit of reason’, Finlay’s work attempts to extend the horizon of those who believe they understand the nature of art or, indeed, the meaning of words.