How does reading break space and time boundaries?


Under the Influence Space and Time Travel
Image: Under the Influence at Art Basel, 2017.

This past March, Asia Art Archive presented Under the Influence: A Travelling Library of Books that Inspire Artists at Art Basel in Hong Kong.

For the project, we invited artists from around the world to choose a book that inspires their artistic practice. Each contributor shared personal stories related to their selection, thereby providing singular perspectives on these one hundred foundational texts from across genres and disciplines.

Since then, Under the Influence has been touring to schools around Hong Kong.

In this sixth installment of a seven-part series on Ideas, we share the books from the project alongside writing from the artists. We wondered, how does reading break space and time boundaries? Note that the thematic groupings reflect AAA's interpretations of these texts.

Part I: A Search for Truth

Part II: Activate/Agitate

Part III: Artist to Artist

Part IV: Ecologies

Part V: On Form

Part VII: Ways of Seeing and Being


Abigail Reynolds on Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban

Image: Cover of <i>Riddley Walker</i> by Russell Hoban.
Image: Cover of Riddley Walker by Russell Hoban.

This 1980 novel is written from the POV of a twelve-year-old boy at some uncertain time in the post-nuclear future, in a degraded form of English informed by Hoban’s deep understanding of the lexicon. Hoban tunes into the deepest cultural lines of British culture, projecting folk understandings from the far past into the quite believable future. He moves us beyond the rational into a more profound understanding. I've read it at least five times since discovering it in 2000, and it remains a touchstone for me.


Heman Chong on 2666 by Roberto Bolano

Image: Cover of <i>2666</i> by Roberto Bolano.
Image: Cover of 2666 by Roberto Bolano.

At the centre of 2666 lies a series of unresolved murders, and the entire plot depends on this looseness, these ambiguities. The reason why I am so drawn to it is because so much of it reminds me of the fabric of life: chaotic situations that defy easy comprehension, equal parts of love and hate. I have read it many times, maybe six or seven times over, and it continues to haunt me. I don’t think I can ever be rid of it. I have even thought of making a bookshop that sells nothing but 2666 copies of 2666.


Ho Tzu Nyen on Impressions of Africa by Raymond Roussel

Image: Cover of <i>Impressions of Africa</i> by Raymond Roussel.
Image: Cover of Impressions of Africa by Raymond Roussel.

Certain books, like certain people, affect us with a particular intensity at specific moments of our lives. Raymond Roussel's Impressions of Africa sat on my shelf for a decade, impervious to previous attacks. But three months ago, in the midst of a stressful period working on a few projects, I dropped out (of work) and picked up the book. It affected me in a way that I still can't quite understand. It consisted of one mind-blowing tableau after another, staged by a gathering of the most obliging group of shipwreck survivors/geniuses imaginable. The next day, I saw all my collaborators in a new, Rousselian light.


Lee Bul on Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino

Image: Cover of <i>Invisible Cities</i> by Italo Calvino.
Image: Cover of Invisible Cities by Italo Calvino.


"Your cities do not exist. Perhaps they have never existed. It is sure they will never exist again. Why do you amuse yourself with consolatory fables? I know well that my empire is rotting like a corpse in a swamp, whose contagion infects the crows that peck it as well as the bamboo that grows, fertilized by its humors. Why do you not speak to me of this? Why do you lie to the emperor of the Tartars, foreigner?"

Polo knew it was best to fall in with the sovereign's dark mood. "Yes, the empire is sick, and what is worse, it is trying to become accustomed to its sores. This is the aim of my explorations: examining the traces of happiness still to be glimpsed, I gauge its short supply. If you want to know how much darkness there is around you, you must sharpen your eyes, peering at the faint lights in the distance."


Nadim Abbas on Dune by Frank Herbert

Image: Cover of <i>Dune</i> by Frank Herbert.
Image: Cover of Dune by Frank Herbert.


"The concept of progress acts as a protective mechanism to shield us from the terrors of the future."

—Princess Irulan, Collected Sayings of Muad'Dib


Naeem Mohaiemen on In a Land Far from Home: A Bengali in Afghanistan by Syed Mujtaba Ali

Image: Cover of <i>In a Land Far from Home: A Bengali in Afghanistan</i> by Syed Mujtaba Ali.
Image: Cover of In a Land Far from Home: A Bengali in Afghanistan by Syed Mujtaba Ali.

In his day, my great uncle Syed Mujtaba Ali was one of the most widely read Bengali writers. This many decades later, translating his text is an uphill task. The genius of his chosen form—a cocktail of languages, puns, double entendres, insider references, and metanarratives—is lost in translation. The enduring impact of his Deshe Bideshe (translated by Nazes Afroz) is also why it is difficult to popularise his work now. At a time when many Bengalis were confined to the subcontinent, Mujtaba spoke multiple languages and wrote about humorous encounters in Paris, Cairo, and Berlin.

I get wistful when I reread Mujtaba's stories. Cafes, dinner parties, card games, Herrs and Frauleins and Mademoiselles. Now, when Bangladeshis are scattered all over the world, selling flowers in Italy and postcards in London, I wonder how Mujtaba passed with such ease in that society. Stories of old-world, melancholy afternoons in Parisian cafes sit uneasily with Schengen zone realities.


Shahzia Sikander on Omeros by Derek Walcott

Image: Cover of <i>Omeros</i> by Derek Walcott.
Image: Cover of Omeros by Derek Walcott.


No man loses his shadow except it is in the night, and even then his shadow is hidden, not lost. At the glow of sunrise, he stands on his own name in that light. When he walks down to the river with the other fishermen his shadow stretches in the morning, and yawns, but you, if you're content with not knowing what our names mean, then I am not Afolable, your father, and you look through my body as the light looks through a leaf. I am not here or a shadow. And you, nameless son, are only the ghost of a name.


Shubigi Rao on Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T. E. Lawrence

Image: Cover of <i>Seven Pillars of Wisdom</i> by T. E. Lawrence.
Image: Cover of Seven Pillars of Wisdom by T. E. Lawrence.


My chosen book is a text that has haunted me since I first found it in my parents' library as a child. Lawrence typically denigrated his work, and would often find his literary accounts deficient, despite his brilliance as a writer and chronicler. In this book I see the lessons of imperial folly, and how the territorial aspirations of a people inevitably attract megalomaniacs and fools. In this book you have the brilliance and disillusionment of the individual, the misery of war (and its seduction for those who yearn for autonomy and substantiation), and the wretchedness of history as it is lived, not written. It is more than the sum of its parts—not merely a military account, but also the literary abstraction of an ethical man of violence and his eventual psychological disintegration.


Tintin Wulia on Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Image: Cover of <i>Le Petit Prince</i> by Antoine de Saint-Exupery.
Image: Cover of Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery.

Of all the books that continue to inspire me, Antoine de Saint-Exupery's Le Petit Prince has been my longest companion, propping different understandings at different points of my life. Alongside it, however, I simply need to mention books like Tim Cresswell's fascinating, overarching story of mobility where "difference is an important but paradoxical theme connecting mobilities" (On the Move); Jose Saramago's rendition of the "line that exists only in maps" (Death at Intervals); Charles Tilly's Regimes and Repertoires, that's currently showing me how ingrained music is in my methodology; and Gearoid O'Tuathail's accounts in Critical Geopolitics that feel so personal.


Vivian Poon on Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials by Reza Negarestani

Image: Cover of <i>Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials</i> by Reza Negarestani.
Image: Cover of Cyclonopedia: Complicity with Anonymous Materials by Reza Negarestani.

I picked this book to share because it is not what I would usually read. This is an interesting book that defies categorisation. It is part horror fiction, part theories, part occult conspiracies, and part apocalyptic theology. It is a mixture of all of the above, blended into the vortex of the Middle East. Strange! I am reading this as part of my master's degree research. While reading this I get headaches and daytime nightmares. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.


Zarina Hashmi on The Aleph by Jorge Luis Borges

Image: Cover of <i>The Aleph</i> by Jorge Luis Borges.
Image: Cover of The Aleph by Jorge Luis Borges.

Calligraphy has always been very important to my work, which is why this story resonates with me. The Aleph is the first letter of the Arabic alphabet; and when we were taught calligraphy, it was the first letter we learned to write. Here is an excerpt from the very end of the story:

There are two observations that I wish to add: one, with regard to the nature of the Aleph; the other, with respect to its name. Let me begin with the latter: "aleph", as we all know, is the name of the first letter of the alphabet of the sacred language.... It has also been said that its shape is that of a man pointing  to  the  sky  and  the  earth,  to  indicate  that  the  lower  world  is  the  map  and  mirror  of  the  higher.... Does that Aleph exist, within the heart of a stone? Did I see it when I saw all things, and then forget it? Our minds are permeable to forgetfulness; I myself am distorting and losing, through the tragic erosion of the years...




Heman CHONG, 張奕滿

HO Tzu Nyen, 何子彥

LEE Bul, 이불

Nadim ABBAS, 唐納天



Shubigi RAO

Tintin WULIA

Vivian POON, 潘蔚然



Research Notes
Mon, 21 Aug 2017
Cite as
Heman CHONG, 張奕滿, HO Tzu Nyen, 何子彥, LEE Bul, 이불, Nadim ABBAS, 唐納天, Naeem MOHAIEMEN, Shahzia SIKANDER, Shubigi RAO, Tintin WULIA, Vivian POON, 潘蔚然, Zarina HASHMI and Abigail REYNOLDS, Book Recommendations | Space and Time Travel, Mon, 21 Aug 2017

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Each Monday, Asia Art Archive publishes new essays, interviews, and curated journeys through the research collections