Singapore's Venice Biennale exhibition features pulpy paper maze

A paper maze housing a book and a film will spring up at the Singapore pavilion at the Venice Biennale this year.

Conceived by artist Shubigi Rao and curated by Ute Meta Bauer, Pulp III: A Short Biography Of The Banished Book marks the mid-point of Rao's 10-year Pulp project - a film, book and visual art exploration of the destruction of books and the book as a site of resistance.

Rao, 46, is the first woman to represent Singapore in a solo exhibition at the prestigious art festival, which runs from April 23 to Nov 27.

The third book in her award-winning Pulp series, titled Pulp Vol. III: A Short Biography Of The Banished Book (2022), was specially written for the exhibition and 5,000 copies will be carried away by biennale visitors into the wider world.

The artist has also shot a film with footage from places such as Singapore and Venice - shining a spotlight on rare libraries, disappearing languages and more.

Rao, who has exhibited at biennales and institutions around the world, is also curating the Kochi-Muziris Biennale, India's biennale of international contemporary art.

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

It is "incredibly meaningful" to be the first woman to have a solo exhibition at the Venice Biennale's Singapore pavilion, said Rao at a press event at Gillman Barracks yesterday.

"It's doubly meaningful because women have traditionally been written out of history. It's very easy to think of this as a project where libraries are celebrated.

"I don't actually celebrate libraries, because libraries are also places of exclusion. If a story is not published, heard, archived or retained, it's like it didn't exist at all."

The installation was designed in collaboration with Laura Miotto, an architect by training and an associate professor at Nanyang Technological University (NTU)'s School of Art, Design and Media. It features "walls" of paper suspended from the ceiling beams and makes the architecture of a book tangible to visitors.

"The audience comes in and it's almost like walking into a book," says Bauer, 63, the founding director of the NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore.

In this "paper-less" age, it draws people's attention to "this precious thing we call paper", she says.

The paper maze will create an atmosphere in which visitors can take their time to watch the film, browse through the book and contemplate.

Rao tends to research and travel alone, carrying all her film equipment on her back and turning to Google Translate to bridge the language gap when she is on the road.

"I get to spend time alone with people. I would find ways to communicate with people, and they would open up to me and tell stories - in some cases, stories that they hadn't shared with anyone else."

She adds in a statement that the Pulp project's stories point to different forms of courage - in action, speech, documenting and sharing.

"These stories embody the most powerful conviction of value beyond narrow tribalism and pecuniary pettifoggery. And every story here speaks also of the millions still unheard and unrecorded.

"There is redemption in the courage of others, of those who make, write and save, and so this presentation is an acknowledgement of all the people and texts that shape while they inform, that force us to defend or relinquish positions, or envelop, enclose and enlighten us."

Bauer says in a statement: "At a time when the world is experiencing great loss - not just in terms of the human lives lost to the pandemic, but also the forms and ways of life lost to the climate crisis - the exhibition at the pavilion fosters an appreciation for what it means to persist, to productively and meaningfully live together."

This year's biennale, also known as the 59th International Art Exhibition, is the 10th time Singapore is taking part under the auspices of the National Arts Council.

A return show will be held in Singapore next year.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 19, 2022, with the headline Singapore's Venice Biennale exhibition features pulpy paper maze. Subscribe