SEEK­ING LOST LI­BRARIES ALONG THE SILK ROAD

A Bri­tish artist em­barked on a unique six-month jour­ney by mo­tor­bike to visit sites in China, Uzbek­istan, Turkey, Egypt, Italy and Iran.

China Daily (Hong Kong) - - LIFE | BOOKS -

Bri­tish artist Abi­gail Reynolds re­cently em­barked on a six­month jour­ney in search of lost li­braries along the an­cient Silk Road route, trav­el­ing by mo­tor­bike.

The artist, based in Corn­wall, Eng­land, fol­lowed a route to trace and doc­u­ment 16 li­braries lost to con­flicts, nat­u­ral catas­tro­phes and war. It re­sulted in her vis­it­ing lo­ca­tions dat­ing from 291 BC to 2011 in China, Uzbek­istan, Turkey, Egypt, Italy and Iran.

“The jour­ney it­self was chal­leng­ing and huge, en­com­pass­ing three quar­ters of the globe, travers­ing mul­ti­ple cul­tures, none fa­mil­iar to me,” she says. “The jour­ney took me to the edges of my knowl­edge, just as the lost li­braries took me to the edge of vi­su­al­ity.”

She says she chose the Silk Road be­cause it is a sym­bol of ex­change among cul­tures.

“The Silk Road was open for the long­est time and it was al­ways a pos­i­tive sym­bol of con­nec­tion and com­mu­ni­ca­tion,” she says. “I knew that there would be li­braries along that route be­cause books were a pre­cious com­mod­ity, along with silk, gold, medicines and all the other things that em­pires de­sire.”

Reynolds loved the idea of fol­low­ing the same path taken by well-known fig­ures be­fore her.

“There were some very well known, cel­e­brated li­braries that were lost and found along the Silk Road and I en­joyed the idea that I would be fol­low­ing a mean­ing­ful line and mak­ing a jour­ney that many peo­ple had made be­fore me such as Marco Polo and Muhammad Ibn Bat­tuta.”

The first leg of her ar­du­ous jour­ney was in China — Yinchuan, the Ningxia Hui au­ton­o­mous re­gion; Xi’an, Shaanxi province; and Dun­huang in Gansu province.

She re­lied on her mo­tor­bike to get around and a 16mm, wind-up Bolex cam­era to cap­ture her ad­ven­tures. But find­ing the li­braries was not an easy task.

The old­est lost li­brary on the Silk Road was the Xianyang Palace in Xi’an, which was de­stroyed around 261 BC. All that re­mains to­day is a waste­land and she was ad­vised to visit the Ter­ra­cotta army set­tle­ment near the area in­stead, but she per­sisted.

“No one wanted me to go to the Xianyang palace site,” she says. “The guides who were there told me it did not ex­ist. I just had to do a lot of ar­gu­ing. In fact, there is a mu­seum there.”

Al­though the site is de­crepit and dusty, Reynolds says there was “some­thing re­al­is­tic and beau­ti­ful about that”.

She de­scribes the Mo­gao caves in Dun­huang as an in­cred­i­ble find. The li­brary there was dis­cov­ered more than 150 years ago and “there were scrolls that have been col­lected from all the cul­tures that fed into the Silk Road”.

The lan­guage bar­rier also gave rise to an­other set of chal­lenges.

“I don’t speak any Chi­nese and I don’t rec­og­nize the writ­ing or read the body lan­guage,” Reynolds says.

“When I was in Xi’an, I didn’t know the word for rice, which now I know, so I had to draw a bowl of rice and ev­ery­one in the restau­rant thought this was hi­lar­i­ously funny and they passed around my draw­ing. But I got the rice.”

Reynolds has al­ways been fas­ci­nated with li­braries, hav­ing “lived a life around books as well as vis­ual art”.

The artist even worked as a bib­li­o­graph­i­cal ci­ta­tions as­sis­tant for the Ox­ford English Dic­tionary.

“I of­ten think about com­mu­ni­ties of peo­ple and how these com­mu­ni­ties shift and change through time, how our ideals change, and the li­brary for me is like a por­trait of a com­mu­nity,” she says.

Reynolds is now in­volved in a com­mu­nity group fight­ing to save her lo­cal li­brary from clo­sure.

“On the news, there are so many re­ports of the de­struc­tion of cul­tural sites in Iraq, like in Mosul and Palmyra, and I am aware of li­braries be­ing lost in Da­m­as­cus,” she says.

“So the sense of the loss of a li­brary is some­thing which is ex­tremely con­tem­po­rary but also an­cient, and a sub­ject that is very close to me at home in my per­sonal life.”

The re­sult of her epic jour­ney through 2,000 years of his­tory and across much of the globe is Ruins of Time: Lost Li­braries of the Silk Road, an ex­hi­bi­tion at Art Basel ear­lier this year in Hong Kong.

She says her ex­plo­ration is more im­por­tant than ever fol­low­ing Bri­tain’s de­ci­sion to leave the Euro­pean Union.

“At the mo­ment, I feel, par- tic­u­larly in the UK, that we are turn­ing away from a lot of good de­ci­sions that were made, about be­ing a part of the EU, about em­brac­ing oth­er­ness, be­com­ing more lib­eral, more tol­er­ant, more in­ter­ested in dif­fer­ences,” Reynolds says.

“All of these things are re­ally im­por­tant to me, in terms of my cul­tural iden­tity. I feel dis­mayed that the wider cul­ture that I be­long to seems to be re­ject­ing these prin­ci­ples that I think are so im­por­tant.”

As a woman, trav­el­ing solo, Reynolds de­scribes fac­ing un­fa­mil­iar places and cul­tures as quite dif­fi­cult at times.

“I knew I’d be trav­el­ing in Iran and I would need to wear the hi­jab, but the ac­tual phys­i­cal ex­pe­ri­ence of wear­ing the hi­jab was so out­side my ex­pe­ri­ence.

“I was ter­ri­ble at wear­ing the hi­jab, it kept slip­ping off,” she says.

“And it was dif­fi­cult to re­mem­ber that you must not shake hands with a man. I feel that as an artist I had ex­pe­ri­ences which I think will take me a long time to fully process or un­der­stand, and that of course has an im­pact on my work.”

In Corn­wall, Reynolds uses a mo­tor­bike to com­mute to her stu­dio and de­cided to use the same method of trans­port for her jour­ney to make the ad­ven­ture more “her own”.

Trav­el­ing by mo­tor­bike, Reynolds was able to meet peo­ple she would not nor­mally meet, an as­pect she says she re­ally en­joyed.

She also em­pha­sizes the im­por­tance of be­ing “con­nected and phys­i­cal” in her trip.

“I would not join a tour group in a coach be­cause you’d just be stuck on this thing which isn’t even your de­ci­sion. I just feel like you would lose all agency, lose all your abil­ity to do things your own way, which is the op­po­site of what I like. Be­ing on a mo­tor­bike you’re re­ally con­nected to your en­vi­ron­ment be­cause you’re vul­ner­a­ble. You’re very aware all the time of ev­ery­thing around you. I re­ally value that feel­ing.”

Reynolds, who stud­ied English Lit­er­a­ture at Ox­ford Univer­sity, now plans a book in­cor­po­rat­ing im­ages, texts and other doc­u­ments orig­i­nat­ing from her ex­pe­ri­ence, as well as mov­ing-im­age works us­ing her 16mm footage.

Be­ing on a mo­tor­bike you’re re­ally con­nected to your en­vi­ron­ment be­cause you’re vul­ner­a­ble. You’re very aware all the time of ev­ery­thing around you.” Abi­gail Reynolds, artist

Con­tact the writer at bole­ung@mail. chi­nadai­lyuk.com

PHO­TOS PRO­VIDED TO CHINA DAILY

Abi­gail Reynolds plans a book in­cor­po­rat­ing im­ages, texts and other doc­u­ments orig­i­nat­ing from her ex­pe­ri­ence, as well as mov­ing-im­age works us­ing her 16mm footage.

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