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Beautiful utopias

Words by Martin Holman

Abigail Reynolds celebrates the lost and living worlds of libraries.

Abigail Reynolds has given Cornwall a new way to look at itself. Her stained-glass window at Kresen Kernow, the county’s archive centre at Redruth since 2016, combines an extraordinary view over the historic collection’s town and surroundings with her own fascination with time, place and books.

Incongruous at first, the window in its boldly rectangular copper frame projects a little way from the first-floor frontage of the rustic former brewhouse. Rising an imposing four metres high, it resembles a gigantic futuristic docking port. In fact, Reynolds conceived her window, inaugurated this March, in a similar spirit, setting in motion stimulating exchanges between inside and outside spaces, between present times and the past.

For St Just-based Reynolds, libraries are where “knowledge is brought together and held for the future”. The archive centre conserves thousands of documents recording the voices and actions of Cornish people. The imagery in the window celebrates the homecoming of one special example, the Ordinalia. Comprising three 14th century mystery plays written primarily in Middle Cornish, this early manuscript version has returned to Cornwall for temporary display and study. Titled ‘Tre’, the Cornish word for ‘homestead’, Reynolds’ window returns the plays to their physical origins in the land.

Mystery plays once planted Biblical stories into illiterate local communities through theatre. The window contains two figures who meet across the centuries within the window, as if beamed in from other temporal dimensions to assume new roles today. One is borrowed from medieval book woodcut illustration, dressed in the copious garments of the time. The other is noticeably modern: Reynolds discovered this image in a photograph, also printed in a book in 1971 about the revival of festivals, a medieval form of gathering. This figure looks out from the glass – towards the exterior view and inwards to address visitors.

The window acts out the story of Seth, told in the Ordinalia. An angel gave him three seeds from the Tree of Life in Paradise to save Seth’s father, Adam who, with Eve, had been expelled from Eden. Adam dies before Seth returns so the seeds are planted and, legend claims, eventually spawned the wooden cross on which Jesus died to redeem mankind.

The Tree of Life is visualised in several panels with printed patterns of foliage, like an ancient screen through which the present-day Cornish landscape is tinted magenta or green, or starkly clear through plain glass. Moreover, the window has a special feature: set into the angled planes are small, coloured roundels made with sand and seaweed collected from beaches near Reynolds’ home. Following an age-old recipe of scouring, grinding and burning the ingredients into bubbles of glass, she created a lens-like opening to view the county through material made from its own natural resources.

The composition of ‘Tre’ unlocks the imagination with numerous stories and associations. The angular shapes of the window panes flutter across the background scenery like pages turning in an open book. Then Reynolds offers a visual play on words: ‘window’ has acquired new meanings in the digital age where glass screens become everyday portals into learning and global realities, words and moving pictures.

Reynolds is acutely aware that the survival of libraries is not guaranteed. To explore their perilous existence, she set off on a trip dedicated to uncovering some of the great libraries lost to history. Her destination was the legendary Silk Road, the ancient network of international merchant routes stretching between China, the Middle East and Europe where knowledge was also traded. And she travelled that road by motorbike.

The opportunity came about by winning the BMW art prize in 2016, unanimously chosen from other entries for proposing an itinerary of 15 locations connected by the historic highway. They included Yinchuan, Xi’an and Dunhuang in China, Kokand in Uzbekistan, Tehran in Iran, Ephesus in Turkey, Cairo in Egypt and Rome and Naples in Italy. All had in common the precious distinction of once hosting fabulous libraries. All have disappeared, the casualties of war, migration and looting as well as of nature: earthquakes and fire have taken their toll.

Recent events added urgency to her plan. As Reynolds told Forbes magazine at the time: “We are losing our libraries in the UK because of funding cuts when they are so important to small and large communities. In the Middle East, libraries are being destroyed by Islamic State.” Unsurprisingly, the journey was intensely moving as well as creative because not all the libraries disappeared centuries ago. At Baisigou in north-west China, the twin conical pagodas built in 1075 once housed a library valued for its early printed books. Partially destroyed by Genghis Khan in 1227, there was barely a trace of it after Mao’s Cultural Revolution 50 years ago.

In Cairo, the historic Jewish storeroom of medieval manuscripts was cleared out in the 19th century by visiting academics from Cambridge. Given permission from the Jewish community to take what they liked, the scholars made off with 193,000 priceless manuscripts and books, explaining later that they ‘liked it all’. And in Tehran, treasured books have been hidden from the authorities since the Islamic revolution in 1979 banned numerous topics, including literary masterpieces and international bestsellers freely available in Britain.

Reynolds travelled for five months and recorded her finds in several forms – the written word, photographs and, for the first time in her career, in 16mm film, using a lightweight, wind-up Bolex camera, famous among avant-garde film-makers for its precision and simple operation. Finally, her illustrated travelogue received high praise when, naturally enough, it was published as a book, Lost Libraries: The Ruins of Time, in 2017.

Reynolds studied literature at university and not art. After graduation she had a job with the Oxford English Dictionary checking when words first appeared in print. That meant the precious collection of early books at the Bodleian library became her unofficial office for three years. “Working for a dictionary gives you an incredible respect for libraries,” she told a journalist on her return from travelling, “and for the attempt to be encyclopaedic about knowledge, even if it’s doomed to fail.”

Her fascination with printed sources could strike modern audiences as nostalgic when so much today is accessed online. Her loyalty, however, remains the physical object. “I could have travelled the Silk Road digitally,” Reynolds says, “but that misses out all the sensuous experience. I am a fan of materiality.”

Her preference for substance and texture is obvious from her ongoing series of collages called The Universal Now, begun in 2004. Collage is the technique of combining different flat materials, often paper cuttings, into a completely new picture. The cutting and folding involved resembles sculpture on a flat surface. Reynolds uses images found in old guidebooks to add a third dimension to that surface by ingeniously folding one photograph into another, creating pleats and ridges. Taken years apart and published in diverse places, the photographs she commandeers are combined so precisely that the same location is viewed simultaneously at two separate moments in its history.

Reynolds trawls bookshops to buy her raw materials. She discovered that many guidebooks repeated the same viewpoint on a major monument, like St Paul’s Cathedral, over the years, although taken by different cameramen. So changes in skyline, traffic volumes and even fashions worn by passers-by marked the passage of time. The quality of print also changed with time; from deep black and white to colour-saturated photographs, images supply their own notion of ‘dated’. In ‘Waterloo Bridge 1959/1947’, an older monochrome view bursts through the more recent coloured scene in a honeycomb of vignettes. In both, the outlines of the bridge are continuous. But at intervals, major differences have appeared in the 12 years that separate them. The Festival of Britain has been and gone, transforming rows of drab, bomb-damaged warehouses on the South Bank into a crowd-pulling cultural destination built on leisure. One view exists alongside the memory of itself.

The effect is even more extraordinary and jarring in ‘The Red Library’ (2014) in which five separate libraries, in five European locations, photographed by five different photographers have become five unconnected pockets of time merged into one. “If you look hard ... you will see the library ‘mirror’ is just an aperture between two rooms - the busts on the mantelpieces are different sizes, as a clue.” Looking hard is the key: a ripple of neatly patterned facets break across the surface like the famous ‘winds of time’.

Art was not her first choice of career. After considering the theatre, she discovered art’s greater potential as a tool for looking critically at the world while working at the dictionary. Then, in 2000, she enrolled for a master’s fine art degree in Lo at Goldsmiths’ College, famous for nurturing the ‘young British artists’ Damien Hirst, Sarah Lucas and their contemporaries in the 1980s. Other alumni include the sculptor Antony Gormley, op-art painter Bridget Riley and film director Steve McQueen.

Her career as a regularly exhibited artist soon took off. She was picked in 2003 for New Contemporaries, a nationally touring exhibition annually showcasing the most interesting emerging practitioners. Her sizeable table-top sculpture called ‘Mount Fear’ introduced her eye-catching and conceptually sophisticated method of interrelating time, place and printed sources with sculptural form. Translating East London’s violent crime figures for 2002-3, she literally pushed the statistician’s flat phrase about ‘peaks and troughs’ of performance into a new dimension by carving a mountainous landscape from a mass of cardboard into Alpine summits, plateaux and ravines, suitably conceived in uniform, bureaucratic grey.

Since then she has shown her work in Britain and abroad. Her sculpture has become as immersive as her collages and public artworks, like the ‘Tre’ window. Similar elements connect all aspects of her practice. In ‘Tol’ (2016), a screen-like metal structure frames coloured glass sections that turn right angles to create a shallow space. Inside the viewer feels enclosed by images of landscape printed from found photographs onto glass set at different heights. One image comes from Daphne du Maurier’s celebrated 1967 book, Vanishing Cornwall, of the Neolithic standing stones at Mên-an-Tol, about three miles from Madron.

Reynolds knows the stones well: they are on her regular route to her studio in St Ives. So when she taps into the rich folklore surrounding their origins, she releases a popular archive of florid storytelling accumulated through centuries. Other references co-exist in the same piece: to the physical experience of sky, land and sea; to Barbara Hepworth, whose sculpted abstract forms owed so much to the ancient heritage of her adopted home; and to Virginia Woolf, recalled in the image of Godrevy Lighthouse.

Reynolds has a writer’s knack of letting her work resonate in numerous directions; complexities evolve from frequently simple beginnings. Selected for the prestigious nationwide British Art Show 9 (which visits Plymouth in September), one contribution combines coloured glass into a screen, like books on shelves from which the words have dissolved leaving images that colour our imagination. Words return, however, in regular readings organised on the show’s tour when the public gather in libraries to share extracts from favourite books.

“For me,” Reynolds wrote in the exhibition’s catalogue, “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.”

The exhibition Abigail Reynolds: Flux continues at Kestle Barton, Manaccan, until 12th June.


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