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Abigail Reynolds: Nailing her Colours to the Mast of British Libraries with Elliptical Reading

Abigail Reynolds is the only South West based artist to have been invited to be a part of The British Art Show 9. In this film, part 2 of 3, she discusses the brand new work she has created for the show, Elliptical Reading. 

Many people will have seen the Wednesday reading sessions held at The Box. These are a part of the work which focuses on the library as a place where diverse communities overlap. Readers meet to share short sections from a favourite book, creating between them an unruly text collage, which builds over time.

Images of the reader’s hands form a temporary frieze, like stained glass, placed over the windows of the library, filtering the light and filling the interior with warmth and colour. 

The same images of hands are also embossed onto brand new bindings for the chosen books, which are on the shelves for people to browse between readings.

Here Abigail tells her story and why she has such a passion for libraries. 

So my name’s Abigail Reynolds. I’m an artist based in St Ives at my studio at Porthmeor, and I’m working with the British Art Show to create new work, which I’ve developed over the four cities called Elliptical Reading. 

I was invited by the curators of British Art Show 9 to create a work for libraries. And I wanted to make a work that would activate all the parts of the library that I think are very important, which to me are three elements. 

So there are the readers, because the library is nothing without the readers who come together and use that library, the collection, the books, and the architecture. So I feel… I’m a maker. I make sculpture. I feel very strongly about the material world. For me, it’s not the same to read a book digitally as materially. So I wanted to celebrate the book and I wanted to celebrate that you would read a real book in real space.

I can imagine a moment in the future where the idea of reading a real book in real space will be so tantalising to people. They will be amazed that we ever could do it because we just won’t be able to anymore. So while we still have it, I’m kind of nailing my colours to that mast!

So, to start from the outside, thinking about the architecture of that building, that space of the library, British libraries are often have terrible carpet tiles, strip lighting. They are on their knees, they have no funding. So I wanted to celebrate that space by bringing light and colour in. 

So I’ve worked with very high key window film to make friezes across the windows. And as I’m working, I’m thinking about book forms, forms of opening books which create angles and shafts of light, which also create angles.

Then into that, I’ve brought the hands of the readers, so the people who are reading the books, because the core of Elliptical Reading is a reading group. That’s the middle of it, and everything else comes out from that. 

So the hands on the windows are the hands of the readers who use that library. But I feel very moved by an action that happened in the ’80s at Greenham Common Women’s Peace Camp called Embrace the Base, where a circle of thousands and thousands of women circled the base holding hands. And when St Just [Cornwall] library was threatened with a closure in 2014, we did an action called Hands Around the Library, which was a circle of people holding hands around the library in a kind of embrace. So for me to have those hands on the architecture of the library and the windows, kind of brings that sense of touch, that personal element right onto the fabric of the library.

That was something I really was excited to do. I was thinking that for me, a library isn’t some sort of performance, it’s a habit. It’s something you do every week, it’s part of your daily life, or your weekly or monthly life. You get those books, you read them, you return them, you have this flow in and out of the library. You’re aware of other people using it. It’s this kind of safe, trusting space, and it’s kind of just part of your life. So I wanted to create something that would bring people every week to the library, where they would share a fragment of one of their favourite books. 

The reason it’s called Elliptical Reading is for two reasons. One, it’s not a reading circle because it’s not. It’s wonky because everybody’s reading a different book. So the first reader opens their book and they read for two minutes from whatever their favourite book is. And after two minutes, we immediately pass to the second reader who starts reading their book. And these two books have nothing in common at all except that they are books that are loved by these readers. 

So it’s like a collage. So I work a lot in collage where you juxtapose elements that wouldn’t normally be put together. And by putting these elements together, you create a new context for what is meant by those elements. So that’s something that I find really enjoyable. I do it a lot with imagery, imagery from books, and here I’m doing it with people. So it’s like social collage. 

The books, I’ve rebound them and they are bound with the reader’s hand on the cover rather than the title. Because for me, what I’m saying is important is that sense of connection and personal touch. I feel like I’ve asked people to share a book that they care about really deeply and is part of their identity. So to have the hand there kind of makes that more obvious. 

And because I’ve rebound the books, they become artworks because I really feel that libraries should be full of beautiful things. Because it’s a library you can have artworks that you can handle. Within a gallery, that wouldn’t be possible. So I’m pushing with the boundaries here of artworks and how they operate. 

Elliptical Reading, in essence, is a really simple work. It’s a reading group where people share their favourite books in little snippets, but in order to implicate the whole of the library, because I think all of the elements of the library is so important. It kind of spills over into being about book binding, about window glazing, about touch and togetherness and hands.

If you’d like to see Abigail’s work at The British Art Show, head to The Box and The Levinsky Gallery anytime before the 23rd December.

You can also see Abigail do a talk and show a film where she will share details about the libraries, the inspiration for her journey and images that feature in the book she produced. The film will document her travels and consider what it means to be lost, the many ways of looking, and how this relates to her two works in British Art Show 9 – Elliptical Reading and When Words Are Forgotten. For more information head to > https://madeinplymouth.co.uk/bas9/artist-talk-abigail-reynolds-lost-libraries-of-the-silk-road/ 

You can also listen to the Elliptical Reading sessions. All the information can be found here > https://madeinplymouth.co.uk/?s=elliptical+reading 

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