Artist Shubigi Rao's Pulp to take centre stage at Venice Biennale's Singapore pavilion

SPH Brightcove Video
Artist Shubigi Rao's early love of reading inspired Pulp – a 10-year exploration of the destruction of books, and the book as a site of resistance. Pulp III is the basis of an art installation at the Venice Biennale's Singapore pavilion.

SINGAPORE - When artist Shubigi Rao was a child in New Delhi, her house was burgled. The robbers, finding no jewellery or money, carted off hundreds of books from her family's library. What they could not take with them, they vandalised, ripping off the covers.

For several years after that, Rao and her family would visit the Sunday book market, spotting their lost books among the wares on the pavement, buying them back if they could afford it. "It was horrible," Rao, now 47, says of the incident. "We had multiple forms of loss, but that was the worst."

Her parents were book lovers. Her "third parent" was the library at home, the titles of which ranged from now century-old children's encyclopaedias to her parents' collection of books on political history, literature, natural history, mythologies and religions of the world.

This early love of reading, and brush with violence, planted seeds for what would much later become Pulp - a 10-year film, book and visual art exploration of the destruction of books, and the book as a site of resistance.

The latest iteration of Pulp - now at its midpoint - launches on April 21 at the Venice Biennale's Singapore pavilion. Visitors will meander through a paper maze housing Rao's new Pulp III book and 90-minute film Talking Leaves.

Rao, who has lived in Singapore for 20 years and is now a citizen, is the first woman to represent the island state in a solo show at the prestigious art festival.

The exhibition looks at Venice as well as Singapore - two historical centres of print. It is curated by Ute Meta Bauer, founding director of the NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore, and commissioned by the National Arts Council.

Five thousand copies of Pulp III: An Intimate Inventory Of The Banished Book, the third in a fivevolume series, have been printed in Venice and will be carried off by visitors from around the world.

Some of the people and places that appear in the book or film are Singapore researcher Faris Joraimi, who specialises in the history of the Malay world; speakers of endangered languages such as Kristang and Cimbrian; an Arabic library in Berlin; and archives of oral testimony of prisoners of war and partisans, especially women.

Rao, a self-described introvert, admits: "I get intimidated by people, especially people I admire. This project has really challenged a lot of that, which is brilliant.

"My biggest fear is not introversion and meeting people, but allowing my brain to stagnate."

Pulp, she adds, was an attempt to figure out her place in the world and her responsibilities in it.

"I couldn't sit back any more and watch horrors unfold on the news. Because, as we know, the destruction of culture goes hand in hand with the genocide of people."

Pulp III: A Short Biography Of The Banished Book exhibition at the Singapore Pavilion of the Venice Biennale. PHOTO: ALESSANDRO BRASILE

Rao grew up in Darjeeling and New Delhi against the backdrop of a militant movement, bomb blasts and the assassination of former Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi in 1984.

The main reason for starting Pulp, she says, was to try to understand "the depressing regularity of violence that people commit against one another, and against the languages, books and cultural repositories of others".

"The violent impulse - I still don't understand it."

This year's biennale, also known as the 59th International Art Exhibition, is themed The Milk Of Dreams. Helmed by Italian Cecilia Alemani, the vast majority of the show's artists are women or gender-nonconforming.

Rao tends to travel solo, carrying all her film equipment on her back while journeying across places such as India, South Korea, Bosnia, Croatia and other parts of Europe.

During the pandemic, however, some interviews for Pulp III had to be done on Zoom, making it harder to rely on word of mouth to find more people to speak to.

A still from Shubigi Rao's film on the history of books and publishing, now showing at the Venice Biennale. PHOTO: SHUBIGI RAO

When The Straits Times meets Rao at her studio in Ubi before she departs for Venice, the artist has just recovered from Covid-19.

On the ground is a sprawling mind map left by Rao and her video editor, and on the tables and shelves, a motley of books she has gathered over the years - from a well-thumbed childhood volume, How To Draw Trees (1940), to Secondhand Time: The Last Of The Soviets (2013) by Belarusian journalist and oral historian Svetlana Alexievich.

The conversation careens from the vanishing hymns of the Armenians in Venice to the "incredibly globalised" Malay world in the 19th century; from the fragility of digital media to the future of libraries.

"I do not think libraries are these cathedrals of knowledge. They are also places that have been complicit in the erasure and silencing and absence of at least half the world's population," she says.

"Libraries need to be more involved in supporting actual production, not just being repositories."

Rao wears many hats: artist, writer, curator and film-maker.

She is a self-described maker of "layered installations of books, etchings, drawings, pseudoscientific machines, metaphysical puzzles, video, ideological board games, garbage and archives".

Periodicals and other material from Primo Moroni Archive, COX18, Milan, Italy. PHOTO: COURTESY OF SHUBIGI RAO

She is also the curator of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, India's biennale of international contemporary art, which kicks off in December.

Years ago, she invented the persona "S. Raoul", a fictitious scientist and polymath under whose name she wrote, made art and published papers. The Retrospectacle Of S. Raoul, her first solo show here, ran at Lasalle in 2013 and was accompanied by the book History's Malcontents: The Life And Times Of S. Raoul (2013).

Rao says the project came from "a deep anger over years of facing misogyny and dismissiveness of women as creators, thinkers, polymaths and humorists".

She adds: "It worked a lot better than I imagined, and proved multiple times the way this fictitious person would get more credence than the real woman behind it all. I was even accused of plagiarising him."

The Singapore Pavilion invites visitors to take a copy of the book Pulp III: An Intimate Inventory Of The Banished Book. PHOTO: ALESSANDRO BRASILE

In 2020, Pulp II won the Singapore Literature Prize in the English creative non-fiction category.

All three Pulp volumes were edited, solely or in part, by Rao's mother Leena Taneja Rao, an environmentalist with an "encyclopaedic" mind who could spot when her daughter's voice had slipped.

"There were moments in Pulp III where she said, 'Shubigi, this doesn't sound like you, who are you really writing for?'"

Shubigi Rao has a degree in English literature from Delhi University, which she did via correspondence. "When I got the syllabus, it was so boring. I was also appalled because one of the only South Asian writers was V.S. Naipaul - the same one who said women can't write because they are not masters of their own house."

The lack of women writers - there was just one - was abysmal, she adds.

And so, for those three years, Rao's adventures in India took her white-water rafting in a glacier-fed river and journeying on a second-hand motorcycle, dressing as a boy so she would not be harassed.

In 2002, after ditching a master's course in ecological and environmental studies in India, she packed her bags and moved to Singapore.

She enrolled in Lasalle College of the Arts and did her diploma, bachelor and master's degrees in fine arts there. "It was the happiest I'd been. I realised this was where I belonged."

Over the years, Rao has supplemented her income with teaching and other freelance work. Her husband - her partner since she was 19 - is a pilot. Their 10-year-old son, Raoul, was named by him for Rao and her alter ego S. Raoul.

"He felt that when I was S. Raoul, I was myself. I always dress in a nondescript way, so you can't really read who I am from what I am wearing.

"S. Raoul was the closest articulation of who I am and (my husband) recognised it before I did."

Shubigi Rao said that Pulp was an attempt to figure out her place in the world and her responsibilities in it. PHOTO: ALFONSE CHIU

She lets on that a future Pulp edition will look at the way information and knowledge exist, propagate and vanish online. "We are so blinded by this idea that technology will solve all our problems. But technology doesn't solve our problems. It just creates new ones."

Pulp III: A Short Biography Of The Banished Book is open to the public in the Arsenale's Sale d'Armi building in Venice, Italy, from Saturday to Nov 27. A return show will be held in Singapore in 2023.

Singapore connection 

Cameroon Pavilion

The African country's debut pavilion has two sections - one spotlighting Cameroonian and international artists, and another showing non-fungible token (NFT) art from around the world.

One of the artists in the NFT show - which is organised by the collective Global Crypto Art DAO - is Singaporean Shavonne Wong, 31, who has created animated female models. She says: "It's a huge validation that the art world is seeing that NFTs are a thing. It's a step towards how people see NFTs, not just as collectibles and scams, but actual art."

Info: Liceo Artistico Statale M. Guggenheim (Cameroonian and international artists); Palazzo Bernardo (NFT show). Go to this website

Asia Forum

In this forum, thinkers, curators and artists will explore the contemporary artistic practices of "Global Asias". Among the speakers are Singapore artist Ho Rui An; Reza Afisina of Jakarta-based collective ruangrupa; and Japanese-Samoan artist Yuki Kihara. Asia Forum was conceived by Annie Jael Kwan, who works between London, Europe and Asia. It is supported by the Bagri Foundation, a Britain-based non-profit.

Info: April 23, 9am Italian time (3pm Singapore time) at Fondazione Querini Stampalia; live stream at this website. Go to the Asia Forum website

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