Singapore Pavilion to unveil Shubigi Rao’s Pulp III exhibition at Venice Biennale 2022
Film still, 16th century edition of Petrarch, censored in 4 different ways, Venice. Courtesy of Shubigi Rao.

Singapore Pavilion to unveil Shubigi Rao’s Pulp III exhibition at Venice Biennale 2022

News that artist Shubigi Rao and curator Ute Meta Bauer have been appointed by the National Arts Council (NAC) as the first ever women-led team to represent Singapore at this year’s Venice Biennale threw an even brighter light on this Mumbai-born Singaporean multidisciplinary artist and writer.

Rao has built a stellar international reputation for her long-term multidisciplinary projects and installation works that often use books, etchings, drawings, videos, and archives to document the lives and cultures of the marginalised and oppressed, and of the heroes who try to keep the flame alive.

Rao is anticipated to present the third instalment of her ongoing 10-year project, Pulp: A Short Biography of the Banished Book, at the Singapore Pavilion of the 59th Venice Biennale, held between 23 Apr to 27 Nov. The project documents the age-old battle between the censorship and erasure of facts and knowledge by those in power and the often-powerless defenders of freedom of thought and speech.

Pulp consists of a series of books, films, artworks, and installations, and has propelled Rao into one of the most lauded artists working in Singapore.

After completing her Bachelor of Arts in English Literature at the University of Delhi, Rao relocated to Singapore and embarked on a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) degree and then a Master of Fine Art (MFA) at LASALLE College of the Arts. Here, one of the persistent themes of her work emerged: intertwining visual art with the power and resonance of the written word and exploring the byways of arcane and suppressed knowledge.

From 2003 to 2013, Rao took on a fictional identity, S. Raoul, to explore the fields of archeology and neuroscience. She recalled this early phase of her career in an interview with Ocula magazine: “I was in the space of science, art, and writing, and the nexus between these arenas is very loaded against women, and I had to prove a point.”

Shubigi_rao persona
The early phase of Shubigi Rao’s career was conducted behind the fictional persona of reclusive polymath, S. Raoul. (Photo: Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore)

Years of research into the arcana of archaeology, immortality, hybridity, and the effects of art on the human mind culminated in the publication of History’s Malcontents: The Life and Times of S. Raoul in March 2013. Through commentary, analysis, excerpts from S. Raoul’s private journals and letters, and gorgeous illustrations, Rao conjured up a disregarded, reclusive polymath dedicated to the pursuit of esoteric knowledge.

It turned out to be the end of the road for S. Raoul, as Rao was now ready to step away from her alter ego whose fictional existence was snuffed out when, in a fanciful flight of irony, he tripped over an art installation by Shubigi Rao, broke his neck, and was honoured as a “dearly departed” in this memorial exhibition titled The Retrospectacle of S. Raoul.

Rao has described the death of S. Raoul as “an act of anti-censorship” for while S. Raoul was around, Rao shied away from solo shows. “All the women who, through history, have watched others steal their spotlight; I made it happen to myself.”

With S. Raoul gone, Rao initiated Pulp: A Short Biography of the Banished Book, the long-term project which was to eventually take the artist to the heights of the Venice Biennale.

Pulp is a historical journey but one that resonates today, as censorship and suppression are as much a fact of life in the 21st century as it was centuries ago. Rao calls the project a “composite chronology of the conjoined literary and violent trajectories of our species.”

The first instalment of Pulp: A Short Biography of the Banished Book received the Juror’s Choice Award at the APB Foundation Signature Art Prize and was shortlisted for the biennial Singapore Literature Prize 2018 (non-fiction). In August 2018, Rao held a solo exhibition titled The Wood for the Trees at Objectifs, which served as a visually arresting bibliography of the texts, people, and places Rao had encountered in the second phase of the project.

It was also at this exhibition where Rao launched the publication of Pulp II: A Visual Bibliography of the Banished Book, which duly won the Singapore Literature Prize (non-fiction) in 2020.

All the while, Rao was burnishing her international reputation, presenting work at the 10th Taipei Biennial in 2016, the 3rd Pune Biennale in 2017, and the 4th Kochi-Muziris Biennale in 2018.

Commissioned by NAC, Rao’s latest tome, Pulp III: A Short Biography of the Banished Book, brings together ephemera, anecdotes, and new research into two communities instrumental in making Singapore and Venice historic printing centres.

Taking the form of a book, film, and paper maze, this milestone exhibition created for the Singapore Pavilion explores the precarity and persistence of endangered languages, the futures of public, and alternative libraries.

“The stories in the Pulp project point to different forms of courage, in action, speech, in documenting, and in sharing,” Rao explains. “These stories also make visible the nuanced forms of resistance in print, and of lives lived surrounded by books, of breathing air heavy with the weight of unread but priceless knowledge, of risking everything to save texts that aren’t theirs, and may never be read.

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 acknowledgment 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.” 

Rao’s deep dive into the stories, memories, and cultures of the forgotten and marginalised has made her a luminary of the art world. She was featured in the 2019 and 2020 editions of the ArtReview Power 100, which charts the most influential people working in contemporary art.

Shuibigi_rao art review Asia 2022
ArtReview Asia’s Spring 2022 edition puts Rao on the cover, highlighting her starring role in the Singapore Pavilion at Venice Biennale and her ambitions as curator of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale later this year. (Photo: ArtReview Asia)

You can enjoy this year’s Singapore Pavilion at the Venice Biennale via Facebook and Instagram (@NACSingapore), and get the latest updates through hashtags #SingaporeInVenice #BiennaleArte2022 and #TheMilkOfDreams.

Better yet, we will likely get the chance to see the Singapore Pavilion in the flesh next year. “We look forward to the return show in 2023 for our local community to experience and immerse in the artworks,” says NAC Chief Executive Officer Rosa Daniel.

We can’t wait to share more awesome content with you. This is going to be so much fun.

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