BMW Art Journey: Libraries of the Silk Road

“Time” is the main theme in the work of British artist Abigail Reynolds. And it is also a key factor on the trip she is undertaking as the winner of the BMW Art Journey. She travels along the historic Silk Road trade route that once joined Europe and Asia, seeking out the sites of formerly significant libraries that have been forgotten over time.

Robert Grunenberg
Courtesy Abigail Reynolds und BMW Art Journey

London, autumn 2016. The Frieze art fair has just opened in Regent’s Park. Situated a little further south, a few minutes’ walk through Westminster, is the imposing building of the RIBA, the Royal Institute of British Architects. Standing there in the light and airy lobby is Abigail Reynolds. The British artist has arrived right on time. “Actually, I’m always late,” she says, brushing her asymmetrical bob behind one ear. She is wearing a men’s watch on her left wrist. “I pinched the watch from my husband. I lost mine this summer.”

Reynolds, who lives with her family in Cornwall in southwest England, usually doesn’t wear a watch at all. On our way to the canteen, where our interview is due to take place, she asks, “Have you seen the film La Jetée by Chris Marker? It’s one of my favourite films. It’s about time travel and the feeling of losing time.” Reynolds examines existential questions about time in her artistic work, too: how can time be depicted and understood using pictures, language and culture? What role do travel and documenting landscapes, places and spaces play in this? “It’s possible these days to go on journeys through time. All you have to do is travel to other continents. I’ve just been to Pakistan, and it felt like the 1970s there,” says Reynolds, who has been travelling to places along the Silk Road since last summer.

The 41-year-old artist’s project “The Ruins of Time” won her the BMW Art Journey, which got underway in summer 2016 and continues until March 2017. During this time, Reynolds is searching for forgotten libraries along the historic trade route on a journey of discovery that will take her to the sites of 16 collections of books from Asia to Europe. All of them are steeped in history and legend but were lost to political conflicts, plundering, natural disasters or wars. Like the legendary Silk Road, Reynolds’itinerary forms a bridge between East and West, between ancient China and the Roman Empire. Along the way, she is visiting historical sites, such as Xi’an in China or Kokand in Uzbekistan, and tracking down libraries in Iran, Turkey, Egypt and finally in Italy, all by motorbike. The outcome of these travels, the body of artistic work produced over the course of the BMW Art Journey, will be presented at Art Basel Hong Kong 2017.

“I don’t yet know what my work will look like when it’s finished. I’m filming with a 16 mm camera, recording the surroundings and noises. And I’m consciously risking the film being damaged in the process.”

Abigail Reynolds

Abigail Reynolds titled her project for the BMW Art Journey “The Ruins of Time.” Her travels along the Silk Road started in summer 2016 and continue until March 2017. During this time, Reynolds is seeking out forgotten libraries along the historic Silk Road trade route.

Where does her interest in libraries come from? “When I was a child, I spent a great deal of time in a small public library. It was a place I was always allowed to go to on my own. That gave me a sense of autonomy and freedom: I could read whatever I wanted.”

In this small library in Ketton, a rural village in the eastern Midlands of England, Reynolds discovered her love of books and literature. Years later, she submitted a number of essays to Oxford University and was awarded one of the coveted places to study English at St Catherine’s College. Here, in the country’s oldest libraries, she researched the complete works of the author John Milton and went on to be part of the lexicographic team at the Oxford English Dictionary after her graduation. Besides her love of language, though, her interest in the visual arts continued to grow. “I’m a restless person. I can’t sit still for long enough to write a book! In my heart of hearts, I’ve always seen myself as a visual artist.”

Reynolds rented a studio in Oxford, painting there during the day and working at the library in the evening, until she secured a place at the prestigious Goldsmiths College of Art in London, from which she graduated in 2002. Can she express things with the help of visual arts when language reaches its limits? “Yes, but the opposite is also true,” replies Reynolds. “Pictures and words each have their own artistic possibilities. It’s always about time, though. My visual works, such as my collages, for instance, are very slow. They often seem enigmatic, and it takes you a moment to understand exactly what you’re looking at. It’s the same thing with books: reading a story takes time.”

In “Year of the Flood” from 2012, the two layered photographs produce a contrast both visually and in terms of content. “It takes you a moment to understand exactly what you’re looking at,” says Abigail Reynolds.

The library was a place that Abigail Reynolds was allowed to go to on her own when she was a child. “That gave me a sense of autonomy and freedom,” says the artist. “I could read whatever I wanted.”

The library was a place that Abigail Reynolds was allowed to go to on her own when she was a child. “That gave me a sense of autonomy and freedom,” says the artist. “I could read whatever I wanted.”

Challenging the observer by both showing and concealing in her art is typical of the way Reynolds works – and it also plays a key role in her journey along the Silk Road. For Reynolds, the search for lost libraries also means exploring empty spaces, ruins and remains. “Libraries represent order, understanding and enlightenment. My travels on the BMW Art Journey revolve around the very opposite: the inability to preserve knowledge forever.” That is why she tries to get as close as she can to the historical sites. In some cases, this is impossible because there is nothing left of the libraries other than an empty space. This was what she found, for example, at the first stop on her list in Xi’an, China. Nothing remains of the library belonging to China’s first emperor from the Xia dynasty – apart from the fact that its approximate location is known.

So how does she go about documenting places like these that on the surface don’t show any trace of what she is looking for? “I don’t yet know what my work will look like when it’s finished. I’m filming with a 16 mm camera, recording the surroundings and noises. And I’m consciously risking the film being damaged in the process.” The heavy and unwieldy Bolex camera has a tendency to produce faulty results, and on top of that the film itself is very sensitive and susceptible to environmental effects. Reynolds is not sure whether the footage from China will be able to withstand the powerful X-rays of the scanners in all the different international airports or the severe weather conditions in the desert regions of Central Asia. It will not become apparent how well the images and scenes captured by her have survived the journey until the films are developed at home.

But even if the material should turn out to be blurred or damaged, that very deterioration in itself would reflect the state of the sites visited, and searching for their traces would, in turn, have left its own traces on the photography and recordings. This is a clever and subtle way of addressing the topics of loss and decay. “There’s usually a reason for libraries being destroyed: it often has to do with suppressing communities, be they religious, political or ethnic. When you destroy a library, you strike at the heart of a cultural identity.” Burning books and destroying libraries goes back a long way. It has happened in every century of human history, and if you think about what is going on today in the civil war in Syria, where the ancient city of Aleppo is being systematically destroyed, then Reynolds’ subject seems more topical than ever.

The artist points out that preserving a library also serves to safeguard a cultural identity. When considered from a modern standpoint, this could, of course, beg the question: why bother worrying about traditional libraries at all when we have digital archives and the internet? “Digital technologies are efficient, but only because they omit virtually everything else. You may well find what you’re looking for faster in an online library, but there is no materiality, no texture, no room, no light, no smell.”

Apart from the tactile experience, searching in a physical library has another crucial advantage: finding things by chance. As you move along the shelves and browse through the art section under “R” in search of a book about Rembrandt, you might stumble across a Rauschenberg or a Reynolds as well. You discover interconnections and have random encounters that an efficient search algorithm is incapable of replicating. Anyone who has completely lost track of time in a library will know how inspirational, thrilling and precious these experiences are. As Reynolds says, a library is a place of “intellectual freedom.”

The topic of time is a common thread that runs through Reynolds’ artistic work. This includes her 2015 work “Saxon Boundary.” The collage of photographs of the dirt track creates a captivating connection between two different periods of time.