Abigail Reynolds in Conversation with András Szántó
A JOURNEY INTO THE DARK
Books have figured prominently in your work as an artist. How so exactly?
I am aware that I am more interested in communities than in individual voices. I often work with books that have some sort of objective view—a guide to England, or London, or an overview of a place or a time period. Such books channel a sort of wider sense that is held by a community that the writer belongs to, rather than a very individualized reaction or research.
I am also interested in structures. I often work with images of architecture. I think of books as a kind of architecture. The architectures I am drawn to are colleges, motorways, theatres or libraries rather than private houses. In such buildings, society takes form.
So, I see books as individual voices in the manner of a choir: you are not so aware of the specific quality of the voice of the individual singer, but you are aware of the harmony of voices. That is how I approach the books I am drawn to in my work. Much the same with my subjects: I am often working with images with groups of people who are gathered together in a landscape to protest or celebrate something—the shape of a group identity. I am looking for moments when a person is speaking in a wider sense, away from themselves.
With such books, I can allow myself a personal voice, because I am not overriding the voice of another individual too strongly. Authorship is quite weak or wide in these books. That leaves me the opportunity to respond in a personal way; I don’t have to feel that I am impinging on that earlier voice that I am working with.
Your background is in literature. How has this influenced the way you look at images?
I learned to read images through reading books—because English culture is extremely logocentric. I came to reading images from reading poetry. I trained myself to read images with an intense focus and attention to formal detail, which is what you learn by reading poetry, by reading it often, and by paying attention to every detail. I find enormous pleasure in following someone’s train of thought. I bring that level of attention to a well-taken photograph.
I am sometimes asked what is my real skill, and I always say that it’s that I can look well and seriously. It is my pleasure to interrogate what I see on many different levels. Having done that, it will become obvious to me what aspects of that place are important to me. I look at an artifact (in the widest possible sense—a place, image, book) from my background in literature.
When you proposed your art journey, you decided to research what you call lost libraries—those lost to conflict or to the ravages of time. What appeal do these abandoned library sites hold for you? What promise do they hold?
In the center of my desire to go to these sites there is a conundrum, or an absurdity. I love to visit working living libraries on any scale, of course. But I am now making a journey to libraries which are no longer there. So there is an enigma in the middle of my desire. In fact, it is hard for me to articulate why exactly I have such a powerful desire to go to these places.
A library is a compendium of knowledge. It is a group identity. It is a meaningful collection. But I am going to places where all that meaning has been voided. I do not feel it is absurd to go to these blanks. Libraries point to our desire to encompass all knowledge and to draw things together in categories which are meaningful, and where we can find meaning and understanding of our human condition and the world in which we find ourselves living. Of course, that is an illusion, because we cannot know all. So, perhaps, it is more true to go to places that only retain a shadow of our human desire for mastery and knowledge.
I think what you are saying is that a library represents a kind of Platonic ideal: the promise of knowledge and understanding even when such knowing is impossible.
We have, as civilizations, built libraries for centuries—since well before the Common Era—and through all these attempts we have been groping at attempts to find meaning. Different civilizations have searched for meaning and categorized learning in different ways. So, in one sense, the order that libraries have imposed on the world is a symbol of our desire to master chaos. It is about our aspiration to slow time. And also to commune with the dead—after all, writers’ books survive past their lifetimes.
Now, if the library is symbolic of these desires, then a lost library is even more symbolic of those impossibilities. That is what draws me toward them.
That tell us why you find libraries compelling. But why lost libraries?
I feel intuitively that even an empty site retains a residue of its former life. Without wanting to sound extremely irrational, I feel that patterns on the land retain meaning beyond the moment when that meaning was present.
I am not overly concerned if I find nothing obvious at these sites. There will be something about the library that it is still there. It may be just the shapes left in the ground. In some cases, books may still be there, but they may be, like at the Villa of the Papyri, in Herculaneum, carbonized, no longer legible, but for the painstaking efforts of science.
For all these reasons, this will be a journey into the dark. And that is what really attracts me. And in the middle of my journey there is a darkness or a void. The center of the Silk Road is closed to me because of current conflict. I can’t do anything to change that. The conflicts that have destroyed many libraries over time still continue today, and this just happens to be smack in the middle of my journey. There will be a beginning and an end, but no middle. This is the order of things. Libraries are being destroyed right now. The line of the Silk Road is broken, but then, the whole of my journey is about things that are broken.
As we speak, soon you are soon to depart to China and you will eventually end up in Istanbul. You will make this journey in three stages. Why focus your research about libraries specifically along the Silk Road?
In my work, I am always looking for lines, formal lines. The Silk Road is among the most ancient of lines we have. It is an invisible line across the landscape. That is tantalizing to me. I knew that ancient library sites would be dotted along it because books have been a precious commodity since before the common era. Therefore, they would be traded and they would travel up and down the most important trade routes. The Silk Road is the most ancient and celebrated route.
I was aware that paper and books originate in China and came to Europe via the Middle East. So any thought about the materiality of books would draw me toward China. I also knew that the most famous lost library, at least for the European reader, is in Alexandria, in Egypt, and that this was destroyed by Julius Caesar, when it was taken by the Roman Empire. The Roman Empire traded with the other extremely wealthy empire of the Chinese dynasties. Recently, China has been talking about reopening the Silk Road as a gesture to its past as an empire that was open to trade. So for all these reasons, some ancient and some contemporary, the Silk Road really called out to me.
I was certain the libraries were there. They had to be, because of what books have meant. In Europe we have celebrated ancient manuscripts, like the Lindesfarne Gospels or the Book of Kells, but they are not so ancient as the papyri and codices in the libraries along the Silk Road. There are many libraries that have been lost that I will not be visiting, because I wanted to keep along a meaningful line. Each lost library is then part of a longer narrative of Empire, structures of power. Since the proposition for the BMW Art Journey was to make a compelling journey, and because it could be anything, my mind allowed itself to think on the most epic scale.
There is, in addition, a reciprocity between the symbolism of the idea of lost libraries and the symbolism of the Silk Road. The Silk Road is a concept. It exists in the imagination today as an exotic image, not as a material fact. It’s dematerialized and exists culturally as an idea. I am making a journey along a path that exists as an idea to libraries that now exist as ideas.
Very soon after I was offered this possibility to make this proposal, I was in my studio listening to the radio. A group of academics had petitioned the Italian government, asking it to continue excavation on the site of the Villa of the Papyri, on the site of Vesuvius, at Herculaneum. It was brought to my notice that this library, which was lost so long ago, may still yet contain the lost Greek tragedies. We know these plays existed, but we have never read them. Now it turns out we may be able to reach them by reading the carbonized papyri with 3D scanners. This in part led to my thoughts about the Roman Empire, Italy and the connection to China. And in thinking about this partially-excavated library, the organizing concept of my journey fell almost fully formed in my head
I should add that there is, as far as I can tell, no library book titled The Lost Libraries, and it was difficult to find them. But Alberto Manguel, an Argentine scholar and librarian has written books on reading and on libraries. He references a number of the lost libraries that I will visit, and considers their significance. That’s an important source of inspiration for me.
How are you going to absorb all this experience? How will you process it?
I have broken the journey into three segments to allow myself time to reflect on each leg. I felt that if I made one continuous journey, I would lose sight of the earlier library sites. So I will come home in between these three sections, to reflect on my experience.
The first journey will take three weeks in late summer of 2016. After that I have a couple of months before the other two sections, which follow hard on one another. When I return from the first one, I will know a lot about how this journey has changed me, and how I can prepare for the other libraries. I want time to understand where I am.
Thinking about what it means to undertake this physical journey across the world, I feel a desire to clear away the extraneous and to be able to be in these silent places as simply as possible. This has an effect on how I will record the site. Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag wrote lucidly about the many issues surrounding photography. One of these is that the photographer can use to camera to, in a sense, ward off experience—almost as an amulet which protects you from experience.
I feel that it is very important for me to record these sites in some tangible way, so I will have a 16mm Bolex camera with me. Every image I take will be slow and considered, because the nature of 16mm is very slow. I’ll also write, but I won’t be distracted by recording my journey in other ways. I just realized as I was saying this, by the way, that I am visiting sixteen sites and I am using 16 mm film—nice coincidence.
And the desire I have to be as open as possible to this journey is why I have chosen to travel by motorcycle. On a bike you can hear and see and smell your surroundings; you are more aware of the contours of the road and the feel of the landscape than is possible in a car. The landscape is available to you and you are available to that journey in a way that is much more naked than any other way I have experienced. I am looking for something that is very physical.
What is the artistic process you envisage that will transform these vivid experiences into artworks?
I don’t generally make my own images. I work with existing images. Partly because I am parsimonious—the world is stuffed with images already. Why make new images when someone has already made them?
I have worked for many years with images of monuments in London, so I am extremely aware of the conventions through which monuments are recorded. This is the material of my work. However, this time I am journeying to these nothings, these blanks, where there may be no preexisting images to use. So I need to somehow record this. And I want to align the sites. They will be connected by my physical presence, and the material of the exposed film. I mean that the film has been exposed to the site, to the available light, in every place.
The Bolex camera has three lenses and takes one hundred feet of film, which plays out in three minutes. 16 mm film is fragile and ephemeral and hard to work with. Generally, it’s handheld. You really have to worry about the light levels. You have to load the camera in the dark, completely by touch. Any light would destroy the film. I expect I will be locking myself into the bathrooms of the hotels where I am staying, as the only spaces where there is no window. I will have to unload the film in the dark, and it will have to be preserved in my bag, which has to stay with me until I arrive home. Then I will have to send it to the lab. Three weeks after that, I will find out what I have done.
In other words, there will be this huge lag. I will be working blind. I will not be able to make creative decisions on the spot. I will have to work intuitively.
So you will be three-times removed from the material present: traveling along the entirely conceptual line of the Silk Road, observing lost libraries which exist only as ideas and not in any practical sense, capturing them in a medium that renders your subject in the most indirect, filtered, transfiguring way.
Yes, the medium of 16mm, in its materiality, mirrors the idea in many ways, although I would not say that it’s indirect. I’d say it’s very direct, because the dust motes, the light of the actual place will fall onto the film. So it’s very much like a thumbprint, very physical. That attracts me.
The darkness, this fragility, this impossibility of knowing all associated with 16mm is perfect for the libraries. In my working practice I often work extremely slowly. I have an encounter with an image, and then it takes me a long time to process, I have a lot of gaps. I like to return a lot. Using 16mm places a space, a gap, a distance between my experience of the site and the final work, which also feel right to me.
You are putting distance between you and your subject, making it less specific. The process seems almost as daunting as the journey itself. Hopefully it is a good way to extract meaning out of the reality you encounter.
Yes, this is really challenging on so many levels. The world is full of things we don’t know. The only way to deal with this is to just go. To go to these challenging places. Who knows what work I will make. But for me, I will move forward, feeling my way from one thought to the next, and keep it close to my hand. Even though 16 mm is not a medium I have used before, I have looked at thousands of images. So I feel these challenges are not insurmountable. And even if the film I put together may be literally dark, then that will only result in a journey for the viewer to challenge herself.
I will be asking people who contemplate my journey along with me to reach into those places, to think about what we mean by knowledge. I am asking them to think about enormous questions. The journey itself is challenging and huge, encompassing three quarters of the globe, and the ideas that are propelling the journey are also huge and longstanding.
I want this journey to take me to places I don’t know already. I am sure things will unfold, and continue to unfold for me in the studio, shaping my original experience into something that can have a form that is able convey some of these big ideas.
Are there any other journeys, other artists, other thinkers who have influenced you as you were mapping out this trip? I know T.S. Eliot has been a big influence on you. Are you thinking of others who have made important journeys and reflected upon them?
One of my favourite accounts of a journey is The Whitsun Weddings by Larkin, which describes a single train ride from Hull to London, but there is so much travel writing I don’t read. There are many accounts from travellers anciently and recently who’ve been along that famous and exotic road, and I have read some of these accounts in preparation to leave. I am planning to take with me books by Marco Polo and his contemporary Ibn Battuta, who traveled along the Silk Road (Battuta writing from an Islamic tradition, Polo from the Christian perspective).
In terms of contemporary writers, I am fixated at the moment with an American writer named Annie Dillard. Her best-known book is Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. It’s very aware of Walden Pond and Thoreau. I’ve just read an incredible short story she wrote about journeying to watch a solar eclipse, of being made painfully, terrifyingly aware of herself thrown up against a cosmic scale. She writes so lucidly in a crystalline way. She wears her erudition lightly, and I’m a great fan of the way she describes her journeys.
A year from now we will make a book together. Whatever you say now is a message in a bottle.
I already touched on the fact that I often work with images which conform to certain conventions about how you represent a place photographically. I am also keenly aware of the conventions that determine how a travel book looks and feels. I collect books designed for use in travel—a guide to London, or a guide to England and various historic sites. I am most extremely aware of existing conventions about books and journeys and guides. I like to play with these conventions, but I leave them intact. Working with bookplates I often leave the plate number and the caption intact with the image, so the viewer has a feeling of contact with source from which this image was plucked. For the book we will make together, it will be extremely enjoyable to me to interrogate those conventions and the things I am taking as my bread and butter. I can imagine turning those conventions on their head.
Some of the libraries I will visit contain parchment scrolls and tablets. The materiality of the books in these ancient libraries took wildly divergent forms. At this point I am just really open to experiencing all these forms and thinking about what is enjoyable about them in their specificity. I know some of this will come through in the work. I am just not yet sure in what form.
Some parts of this journey will be solitary. It will be quite different from your frequent motorcycle rides in Cornwall. All journeys are by their nature spiritual to some degree. Do you have any anticipation of how this experience will affect you in larger ways?
In Cornwall, I travel around on my motorbike. From my motorbike I am always intensely aware of every changing detail, because I know the landscape intimately. Same for London, where I lived for ten years and went around on a pushbike. I make images that describe the verticality of time in both these places. In both Penwith in Cornwall, and in central London, my work comes from a place of daily familiarity. It is rather like being at home with your family. You read everything intensely, in a nuanced way, because you know it so well. By extreme contrast, I have never visited the Silk Road countries save Italy and Turkey. I will not speak the local language, nor understand the social norms. Rather like with the lost libraries, I will be brought to the edges of my knowing. I will have to guess at everything.
In June I made a work in Cornwall that was as an all-night walk, from the west-facing cliff near Mullion to the eastern strand. When the sun went down on the shortest night of the year we turned and walked in the direction of the earth’s rotation, toward the dawn on the eastern coast. We walked all night long in the dark, and lit a beacon fire on the beach by Dean Quarry as we waited for the sunrise.
Somehow, this experience is linked to my desire to go to the lost libraries. Although there was a full moon, the heavy cloud cover never broke open, and it rained continuously during the entire night. Everything became a shadow. We didn’t use torches. It was a strange experience that I have not been able to fully articulate to myself: this blindness, this going into a situation where you can’t read the way you normally would.
Somehow, for me, that walk was a preparation for my journey. I will be at the edges of my senses, because I do not know much. Will this journey be an obliteration of myself, or will it grant me more space to be myself? I don’t know. I will just have to go.