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British artist inspired by Silk Road's lost libraries

By BO LEUNG | chinadaily.com.cn | Updated: 2017-06-29 15:24

British artist Abigail Reynolds has created an exhibition based on her six-month adventure by motorbike in search of the 16 lost libraries of the Silk Road.

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

Reynolds, who is based in the county of Cornwall in Southwest England, set out on the journey as inspiration for a commissioned project. She hoped to find and document 16 ancient libraries that have been lost to political 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 said. "The journey brought me to the edges of my knowledge, just as the lost libraries brought me to the edge of visuality."

She said she chose the Silk Road because it is a symbol of exchange between cultures.

"The Silk Road has been opened for the longest time and it's always been a positive symbol of connection and communication," she said.

"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."

The first leg of her arduous journey started in China, where she visited Yinchuan, Xi'an, and Dunhuang.

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

The oldest lost library on the Silk Road was the Xianyang Palace in Xi'an, which was destroyed around 206 BC. All that remains today is a wasteland and she was advised to give up and visit the Terracotta Warriors instead.

She described the Mogao caves in Dunhuang as something incredible. The library that had stood there was discovered more than 150 years ago and "there were scrolls which have been collected from all the cultures that fed into the Silk Road".

Reynolds had a childhood fascination with libraries, having "lived a life around books as well as visual art" and she is involved in a community group fighting to save her own local library from closure.

"On the news, there were so many reports of the destruction of cultural sites in Iraq, like in Mosul and Palmira, and I was aware of libraries being lost in Damascus," she said.

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

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