Abigail Reynolds knew she had made life difficult for herself by travelling with her Bolex – a heavy, 16mm film camera that hadn’t been in fashion since the 1950s. She knew she had to protect the sensitive film from airport X-rays, but what she hadn’t considered was what would happen if she were arrested. So when she was detained by military police in Cairo for filming a library destroyed during the 2011 revolution, she watched in horror as the officers opened her camera, exposing its film to light.
Reynolds is chatting by phone from her home in the Cornish countryside, but for the past several months, the British artist has been on a BMW Art Journey, riding a motorcycle along the ancient Silk Road, filming libraries with the Bolex for her project, The Ruins of Time: Lost Libraries of the Silk Road. She recently sent her final bits of footage to be processed. “It should be coming back some time today,” she says. She isn’t sure what her encounter with the Egyptian authorities had done to it. “I don’t know if anything survived.”
It’s all part of the process. Reynolds is known for taking vintage photos from books and folding and cutting them into three-dimensional collages that manipulate time and space. When she was chosen to take part in BMW’s Art Journey programme, which gives artists the opportunity to take their practice on the road, she decided to use a Bolex precisely because it is such a fickle beast.
“As I was laboriously loading my camera, which I can’t do in less than seven minutes, I was aware that there was a time when it was hard to make images,” she says. “We’ve just entered a moment when it’s easy, easy, easy. It’s just like chatter. It’s rubbish. It’s meaningless to me. There are good things to come out of that ubiquity – you can have many different voices – but what’s astonishing about the digital revolution in imagery is that most people produce what everyone else is producing.” She calls it a “duplication of clichés” – the same hackneyed scene replicated millions of times by millions of people. Don’t get her started on selfies. “The selfie is a horrible thing where you reduce the whole of the world and all of its weirdness into a backdrop for your own stupid face,” she says, with a wry laugh.
It’s a maddening scenario. Never has the world been more accessible, and yet people are just as insular and reductive as ever. When the people of England voted for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union, motivated in large part by nationalism and xenophobia, Reynolds says she felt ashamed. ”It feels like a withdrawal from openness and exchange, and it feels like a rejection of what we don’t know,” she says.
That’s when she began thinking of the Silk Road, the historic route along which centuries of goods and ideas flowed between China, the Middle East and Europe. “I feel the Silk Road is a really potent symbol of heterogeneous flow through times, through cultures, through faith systems,” she says. She liked the idea of the road from an aesthetic standpoint, too, since it reflected the formalist tendencies of her art. “The fact that there was a series of lines scored across the globe appealed to me since I am always scoring lines across images,” she says. “There’s a clarity.”
Because paper had made its way from China to Europe along the Silk Road, Reynolds decided to focus her journey on libraries. “I was coming at it from a love of libraries more than a love of the Silk Road,” she says. Libraries are repositories not just of books but of philosophy, knowledge and culture. “A library is almost like a family album, except at a much wider scale. That’s why libraries are very frequently destroyed in civil conflict and war, because it’s a very quick way to strike deep at the heart of a group of people, to remove their history and the narratives that are important to them; the books that are essential to their belief. It was done before and it’s being done now, in Syria and Iraq, in places like Mosul.”
There’s also the fact that books are physical objects – and materiality is important to Reynolds, whose work transforms two-dimensional images into three-dimensional sculptures. “The book is very personal, the physicality of it – it’s a private handheld communication, very solitary, handheld, fingertip, the sound of a page turning. It’s a solipsistic form.”
That’s something that comes back to her use of the Bolex and its unpredictable 16mm film. Reynolds has always been ambivalent about film, because it seems distant and removed from the present – the very opposite of her paper-based work.
“We’re really bad at living in the present. As humans, we’re constantly living in the future and the past, projecting yourself forward and back, and that’s what I’m doing, creating a visual puzzle, doing things very small and intense, to bring you into that present moment,” she says. “I work with paper because making a fold or rupture in time, bringing two things together that didn’t used to be together, it’s opening a new set of possibilities. It’s almost as if by folding and changing those perspectives, I’m suggesting you can change your point of view.”
Because 16mm film is so sensitive, however, it often produces images that are damaged and distorted, “where you can feel the materiality of what it is – this little strip of film with light-sensitive emulsion on it”, says Reynolds. When 16mm film is processed, the lab punches a hole in the final frame of each roll, another physical characteristic that Reynolds finds fascinating. “There’s something quite beautiful to me in that void that’s opened up, that whole section that is missing,” she says. “This hole in our knowledge that we can’t fill. This potentiality that we can project into.”
When she finally presents her work at Art Basel in Hong Kong, you can expect all of these things to come together: the flow of culture along the Silk Road, the historical weight of the route’s libraries, and the material property of the film Reynolds used to record her journey. Consider it the anti-Instagram way of travelling – what Reynolds calls “a journey all about blindness and voids and not knowing”.
Incidentally, a few hours after our chat, Reynolds received the processed film from Egypt, the film that had been exposed to light by the military police. It turns out that incident had remarkably little impact on the film – just enough to serve as a reminder of what happened.