by Dilpreet BhullarApr 19, 2022
This year's edition of the Venice Art Biennale marks the 10th year of participation by the Singapore Pavilion. Presenting at the pavilion is artist Shubigi Rao with Pulp III: A Short Biography of the Banished Book. Her exhibition, curated by Ute Meta Bauer, also includes a film titled Talking Leaves and a paper maze. The space is designed in collaboration with exhibition designer Laura Miotto. Although Rao is a member of the Indian diaspora, her roots have grown in Singaporean soil. She showcases proudly at VAB as the first solo female artist to represent Singapore. We spoke to the artist to learn more about her practice, as well as the work on view, in a more intimate way.
Rao discusses the book, an important part of the oeuvre on display. She says, “It marks the midpoint of my 10-year project, Pulp, which has explored the history of book destruction and its impact on the futures of knowledge. Since 2014, the project has explored several overarching themes, including the loss and preservation of endangered languages, unfettered access to information, resistance to monetisation of knowledge through shadow libraries, and the analysis of why libraries and books are banned or burnt.” The book on display at Venice Biennale is the third part of the Pulp series.
Rao continues to discuss how the pandemic affected her approach to the project saying, “Pulp was intended to span 10 years, with five volumes issued at two-year intervals; its multi-volume format allowed me the space to evolve alongside my research. However, between my work as the curator of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, and the pandemic and its restrictions on movement, I had to adjust the parameters of the project. COVID-19 also affected my way of working, which previously involved an intuitive practice of travel and conversations with people across the world, a method that offered me an opportunity to follow various threads and conversations wherever these would take me. I therefore focussed more on the cosmopolitanism of regional print communities that have blossomed and waned in historic centres of print across geographies and borders, particularly Singapore, Southeast Asia, and Venice, and have found some evocative connections between them." Through the book, Rao also examines endangered and vanishing languages in Singapore and Venice, bringing to focus narratives around oppression, violence and silencing. Rao travelled to meet librarians, printers, book sellers and publishers from various regions to delve deeper into the history of knowledge and stories.
Rao says, "To me, one of the best ways to preserve human knowledge, our conversations and our storytelling is to bring them into people's consciousness through the physical and the virtual. At their core, the book and film offer a diversity of stories woven together from across the world. It's a documentation on human aspiration, desire and yearnings, eradication and violence, error and failure, encapsulating the best and the worst of all of us."
Rao's Pulp series is also an invocation to all who stand against the control of data, a profound issue in today’s time. “Pulp looks at knowledge through the lens of historical cycles, or movements of events – for example, the rise of population and the siloing of information. It explores the effects of the monetisation of knowledge, of information as one of the most highly valued commodities,” says the artist. The project considers the concept of a library to be a centre of knowledge, and in that sense functions as both a strategy and a tool against the hegemonic hold of information. Rao talks about the social, political and financial hold over all kinds of information, restricting access to independent researchers. She says, "Currently, most of the world's scientific and humanities papers are paywalled by journals owned by between four to six publishers. In fact, we don't know exactly how many because they are often nested within shell companies - but they are based across four countries, of course, all in the West.”
Rao's presentation at the biennale calls upon us all to awaken to this phenomenon saying, “This is why we have shadow, pirate libraries. For me, I feel a particular kinship with this act of resistance, of making knowledge free and open access. This is something that tyrants and demagogues detest. They fear the open exchange of information, independent channels of reportage, because eventually, they can only maintain their dictatorial status by reinforcing singular narratives to the exclusion of all else. There is also an enormous amount of money to be made in controlling and manipulating information."
Rao’s new film Talking Leaves, also on view at the Singapore Pavilion, has been filmed over five years in Venice and Singapore. The film weaves together the mytho-poetics of legendary libraries, half-truths, hearsay, and contested narratives, forming a lyrical manuscript that is a lush celebration of the unquenchable human need to tell and share stories, and a haunting elegy to waning communities of print. The contemporary artist tells us more, "I share the stories of those at the front-lines of saving books and libraries and preserving endangered languages and vanishing cultures, while also the sorrow of losing access to personal and collective pasts and histories. It was partially filmed in Venice, a city that embodies a vital history of print and open access and tells, among other stories, how books from a now-defunct archive of women partisans and genocide survivors, are rescued. Discussions about the historical connections of access to knowledge and political power with Italian professor of book history, Mario Infelise, are interwoven with conversations with Singaporean researcher Faris Joraimi about the cultural politics and intellectual history of the Malay world. Venetian librarian Ilenia Maschietto shares stories of banned books and her favourite books of resistance, while academic Marco Borghi explains how alternative archives can act as safeguards of democracy.”
She concludes by saying, “Through these stories, I hope to convey how the book can be seen as the embodiment of collective thought, labour, and readership, and I hope viewers will recognise the book as an intimate holder of humanity and community.” The exhibition itself is also designed to make the viewer feel as though they are within a book themselves, to immerse in the experience of it rather than see it as an external object. The paper maze designed in collaboration with Bauer and Miotto brings to life the narratives shared in Rao's work, creating engagement and excitement.
Rao's practice explores various ideas including libraries, archival systems, histories and lies, literature and violence, ecologies and natural history. She navigates through these ideas through a spectrum of media including film, text and photograph. She looks at current and historical flashpoints as perspectival shifts to examining contemporary crises of displacement, whether of people, languages, cultures, or knowledge bodies. The multidisciplinary artist has been visiting public and private collections, libraries and archives globally for her 10-year project titled Pulp: A Short Biography of the Banished Book. Her published books have won numerous awards, including AIGA’s (New York) fifty best books of 2016 and 2018, and D&AD Pencil for design (2016, 2018). Rao has also been featured in 10th Asia-Pacific Triennial (2021), March Meets (2019), fourth Kochi-Muziris Biennale (2018), 10th Taipei Biennial, (2016); third Pune Biennale (2017), and second Singapore Biennale (2008). She is currently the curator for the upcoming Kochi-Muziris Biennale in 2022.
The 59th International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia, titled The Milk of Dreams is open to the public from April 23-November 27, 2022, at the Giardini and the Arsenale, Venice.
Click here to read more about STIRring Dreams, a series of articles by STIR that explore some of the best presentations at this year's edition of the art biennale.