Changing Perspectives on the World

Abigail Reynolds was interviewed by Denise Clarke.

Abigail Reynolds currently lives and works in Cornwall, UK. Having studied English Literature at St Catherine’s College, Oxford University, her multi-disciplinary, research-led work focuses on books and libraries both as a source of inspiration and a site of practice. Drawing on classic British, Greek, Norse and Persian myth, local tradition and landscape she imbricates them into often unexpected relationships to mediate on the construction of identity.

She has exhibited widely in both solo and group shows in Europe and USA since 2003. More recently, her exhibitions include Memories of Tomorrow, Wellington, Canada in 2014, West China Biennial in Yinchuan and Lost Libraries, Rokeby Gallery, London 2016, We Beat the Bounds, Tate St Ives in 2017, Structures of Meaning/Architectures of Perception, Manarat Al Sadiyaat, Abu Dhabi and Through a Tremulous Prism: Friends with Books, Hamburger Bahnhof, Berlin in 2018. In March 2016 she was awarded the BMW Journey Prize at Art Basel to travel to lost libraries along the Silk Road.

Arts Cabinet (AC) Books and Libraries underpin your practice, both as source material and sites of practice. How and why have books become so important to you?

Abigail Reynolds (AR) For me, books are inextricably tied up with a process of self-discovery – forging my own identity and finding out where my allegiances sit and what my values are. Access to books via libraries literally changed my life. I did not come from a middle-class background with easy access to culture. Books gave me an entry into wider cultural concerns. Books are also key to the construction of British identity. I see Britain as a very logocentric island as far as cultural identity is concerned. The story of Britain is a written one where the Anglo-Saxon language and Shakespeare have been central to the creation of “this sceptred isle”. If reading is key, art and music is relatively neglected.

I was also a quite a “solitary” child. Books became my friends and I went on to study Literature at Oxford University. I find myths, be it English, Norse, Greek or Persian very compelling. Books such as the Persian classic Shahnameh that could be considered as important to Iranian national identity as distinct from Arab, I will revisit many times. I find my way by books – for example I prize Emma by Jane Austin for a portrayal of the social, manners and how to be in the world. I guess I could be called a liberal humanist. I am not a religious person, but libraries would be the closest thing I can point to outside of landscape, that would be my spiritual home.

Libraries are also a social space, an egalitarian, tolerant, safe space with a mix of ages and backgrounds all who have the right to be there. Unlike the internet which tends to reinforce our own assumptions, libraries are teeming with different, conflicting ideas.

AC) Art and literature have long been yoked together in a relationship that fluctuates over time in a way that questions the boundaries of both and of course interdisciplinarity could now be considered the backbone of contemporary culture. I am wondering though how you personally articulate this relationship and how such an intense engagement with books and libraries led you to become an artist?

AR) Yes, I think books gave me an entry into wider cultural discourses. My excitement about visual art did come later. Libraries are (or were) easier to access than art galleries and my first entry into art was through a book on Titian. Further discoveries came through working in theatre. I was interested in looking at the physicality of a text, or text as visual stimulus. Eventually however, I discovered galleries and began to find them a more shall we say, satisfying space within which to develop my ideas about the confrontation with ideas and objects in real space and time. Galleries can be a more solitary space of contemplation in comparison to theatre but less so than with the reading of a book. I am interested in the materiality or physicality of books and library spaces. I am less interested in digital reading platforms than the physical book form.

The artist book I created for my Lost Libraries of the Silk Road project is not crafted as a novel might be.[1]It is conceived as a series of rolling thoughts and ideas about spaces of social and cultural encounter I experienced at these sites of the Silk Road. Much of my work seeks unexpected connections between events, people or landscapes. If I tried to write about these connections it might shut down such an exploration. Art is a very flexible medium with which to work through formal, intellectual and emotional connections.

AC) You have mentioned your love of myth, a literary genre that has proved to be a long-standing source of inspiration to artists. How do you engage with myth in your artistic practice? What role does it play in works such as The Mothers Bonesand The Maidens?

AR) History is of course made up of an interweaving of fact, fiction, myth and legend. In both works I am likewise intertwining myth and its associated rituals with elements of the British landscape and specific historical and contemporary socio-cultural contexts in order to produce new understandings or meanings about place and identity. With The Mother’s Bones, I was working in the Lizard Peninsular, Cornwall with the award winning St Keverne Band. Formed originally in the late 19thcentury by workers form nearby Dean quarry, the idea was to stage a performance at the quarry thereby returning them to their location of origin.

The filmic montage that emerged was also inspired by the interlacing of the Greek myth Deucalion and Phyrra where a biblical like post flood landscape is re-peopled by casting stones across the earth as a signifier of “mothers bones” and the novel Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban set in a post-apocalyptic future and written in a very distinctive idiosyncratic narrative style blending new syncretic language with religious tradition. Accompanied by a specially commissioned musical score, the bands performance was set in the now abandoned quarry that was scattered with models of mineral crystals giving the quarry a crystalline sense of time and place and jarring scales – the microscopic realized in hand-sized glass forms.

To be reminded of these origins has real contemporary relevance now that plans have emerged to re-open what was once a low noise aggregate quarry sitting in the landscape between small rural, coastal communities into a much larger concern mining gabbro for coastal defences. There is a certain circularity established between my work and this development. Given projected sea level rises globally this could be a profitable business. The local communities are split between those who oppose it on environmental grounds and those who support it on the grounds that it represents a continuation of the long history of mining in Cornwall that has been historically important to its identity.

With The Maidens, I was bringing together two seemingly disparate groups of people both of whom can be considered as important to British identity – women who set up camp around Greenham Common to campaign for nuclear disarmament in 1981 and Morris Dancers. The former was often seen as a radical group of women who transgressed feminine norms, the latter as conservative, reinforcing traditional norms. They are connected however, by their commitment to place and action in the landscape. Through the imagery of a circle, I linked barbed wire fences, women protestors, surrounding roads, the physical formation of the Morris dancers with a group of stones that represents the legend of a rejected spirituality practiced by Merry Maidens who were also vilified for transgressing norms by dancing on the Sabbath.

Both bring together different elements into a new space for re-imagining of landscape and identity that recoups their mythical dimensions. To think differently about relations.

AC) The concept of time is very central to your work. In my own recent travels to exhibitions including Is this Tomorrowat Whitechapel Gallery, Kochi and Sharjah Biennial (where incidentally one of the curators requested a list of all the books that the artists she was working with had read over the last 2 years for greater understanding of their work) the concept of time is very prominent. 2 strands in particular stand out: the idea that time is moving too fast, that intensified globalisation is producing a sense of disorientation and conversely as expounded by Francois Hartog in Regimes of Historicity, that we are stuck in a perpetual present that mitigates against thinking about possible futures in the face of growing crises. I am interested to know how you conceptually and materially work with the issue of time?

AR) There is a lot of talk about the tyranny of the present and the role of artists in thinking about the future. But I also ask why should we be somewhere other than the present? The etymology of the word present in French - maintenant - points us towards “being at hand” and maintenance of the present by “being held”. To be present is a physical sensation, tactile and gripping. It is practica, of the hand.

In terms of artists producing knowledge for the future, it’s a big ask. We are so dominated by big corporations. Their economic power is such that maybe we can only imagine something new as long as it is OK with them! Artists can look at the pressing issues but to actually effect change you need to be an activist. For me, art is not aligned with propaganda. Art is more about providing different lenses, different perspectives.

In terms of bringing the conceptual and material together, I work a lot with photography which is a time-based media. Time is also often critical in fictional plots. In my series The Universal Now, I use photographs in books of a single location or landmark but taken at different times splicing them together to produce multiple viewpoints. This gives a sense of the folding of time. It may produce a new book or sometimes the photographs are pushed together to form origami like structures that vary depending on the position of the viewer. This series is underlain by my ruminations on the scientific discourses on the nature of “now” – the simple question , “is there a universal now”? can be asked by an astronomer or psychiatrist. It’s an open question – we don’t know.

AC) I am wondering if your research for your work could be characterised as “slow research” in the sense that it utilizes the book as a traditional technology compared to the internet, pays attention to the rhythms of landscape. It seems to be driven by an enduring sense of curiosity rather than the need for results so characteristic of our current neo-liberal knowledge economy that seems to be driving the growth of practice-led PhD’s in art schools and universities?

AR) Again, there is much discussion about the intellectualization of art – about the use of theory. Of course, theory is now part of the conversation regarding contemporary art practice. But for me the PhD route is too “channelling”. I don’t think a PhD would help me. In fact, I don’t think it would be fruitful at all. Th world is currently big on information but light on connection, synthesis and analysis. I conceived of my recent project Lost Libraries of the Silk Roadnot as a set of theories but as a series of experiences based on a research model that was open-ended, with no definite outcome. Is this knowledge production? I don’t know. Maybe it is a gift, a set of values and ideas?

AC) I am pleased you have brought us finally to Lost Libraries. This is the project through which I first became interested in your work. You mentioned that you see this work as a series of experiences. You travelled for 5 months by motorbike to 15 different sites spanning over 2000 years of history. How, with the benefit of hindsight do you now think about these experiences, they must include a tremendous range?

AR) It was a fantasy of mine to travel by motorbike to all of the sites, but it was not entirely fulfilled! I used motorbike where possible, throughout China for example. In Uzbekistan a motorbike is considered a very low status form of transport. There were hardly any to be found. In Turkey and Iran, it was not appropriate for women to use them. In Egypt I was arrested for photographing sites an event that seemed to reflect the present fractured, stressed state of the country.

Lost Libraries, 2017 - Courtesy of the Artist
Click here to watch: The Universal Now and Further Episodes

The whole journey changed my perspective on the world. I was “accompanied” by the essays of Georges Perec on classification.[2]This is a fundamental issue for all libraries and structures of understanding. My work is always bound up with different perspectives and modes of understanding. Like the exhibition Speech Acts it addresses the restructuring and contingency of knowledge, of dominant narratives.[3]The Lost Libraries project made me question my assumptions of the world and my own identity. Why am I so attracted to Europe? What of its Eurocentric histories? On reflection Europe seems tired and whilst some of the places I went to are considered “closed”, Europe also now seems closed – but in a different way.

[1]See also https://www.artscabinet.org/editorial/book-burning-past-and-present-3-artistic-responses

[2]See Penser/Classer, Georges Perec, 1985

[3]Speech Acts: Reflection-Imagination-Repetition, Manchester Art Gallery, May 2018 – April 2019