Travel with us to the 59th International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia
The first look at Shubigi Rao’s latest instalment of Pulp at the Singapore Pavilion of the International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia. (Photo: National Arts Council)

Travel with us to the 59th International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia

Delayed a year by the pandemic, the 59th edition of the famed International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia has opened its doors to an expected half a million visitors over the next seven months. This is Singapore’s 10th participation in the world’s most prestigious art event, and, for the first time, features its first ever women-led team.

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The first ever women-led team representing Singapore at the 59th International Art Exhibition – La Biennale di Venezia: curator Ute Meta Bauer, artist Shubigi Rao, and exhibition designer Laura Miotto. (Photo: National Arts Council)
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Edwin Tong, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth speaking at the official opening of the Singapore Pavilion at the 59th International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia on 21 Apr. (Photo: National Arts Council)

Throughout its 127-year history, the International Art Exhibition has been curated almost exclusively by men and featured a predominantly male roster of artists. As recently as 1995, roughly nine out of 10 artists in the exhibition were men and it was not until 2019 that gender parity was achieved for the first time.

This year, the male-female ratio is radically reversed. Italian-born artistic director Cecilia Alemani has chosen 213 artists for the central exhibition, and roughly nine out of 10 are women. The Singapore Pavilion chimes perfectly with this corrective shift, being curated by Ute Meta Bauer, designed by trained architect Laura Miotto, and showcasing the creative vision of Shubigi Rao.

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Cecilia Alemani, the first Italian woman to curate the International Art Exhibition, has filled the 59th edition of the event with a record number of female artists. (Photo: Andrea Avezzù/Courtesy of La Biennale di Venezia)

Housed within a paper maze, the Singapore Pavilion introduces the latest instalment of Rao’s Pulp: A Short Biography of the Banished Book – a decade-long deep dive into the ways knowledge and culture are disseminated and preserved and, all too often, suppressed and erased. Taking the form of a book, film, and paper maze, the Pavilion takes visitors on a journey through stories and writings from many marginalised communities fighting to preserve their place in the world.

Approaching the Pavilion entrance, one steps between what appears to be sheets of paper holding us within its folds. This hanging paper maze unfolds to reveal not only the structure of a book but also Rao’s journey of discovery into a world of stories centred around books, for hundreds of documents, books, and chronicles are at the core of this work.

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Partially filmed in Venice, the film Talking Leaves depicts, among other stories, how books from an almost-lost archive of women partisans and genocide survivors were rescued from oblivion. (Photo: National Arts Council)
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A film still featuring Paolo Olbi, the printer for the Armenian diaspora community in Venice, in the traditional print workshop of Antica Stamperia Armena, at Ca’ Zenobi, Venice, Italy. (Photo: Shubigi Rao)

The next encounter is a multivocal film experience that explores, by way of personal

memories and poetic reflections, elements of documentary and shards of dying and lost languages. It features the stories of people at the frontlines of saving books and libraries – smuggling books out of harm’s way and preserving endangered languages and vanishing cultures, even as they lament the loss of access to personal and collective histories and shared memories when the battle is lost.

The film showcases Singaporean writer Melissa de Silva reading aloud from a book of idioms in Kristang, an endangered language of Malacca and Singapore’s Eurasian communities, discussions with Singaporean researcher Faris Joraimi shedding light on the cultural politics and intellectual history of the Malay world, and a conversation with Italian professor of book history Mario Infelise about the historical connections of access to knowledge and political.

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As visitors track further into the paper maze, they will come upon a small structure built from stacks of Rao’s book Pulp III: An Intimate Inventory Of The Banished Book. Copies are free for visitors to browse or take home. (Photo: National Arts Council)

Venetian librarian Ilenia Maschietto echoes the sentiment with her stories of banned books and her favourite books of resistance while Marco Borghi explains how alternative archives can act as safeguards of democracy. Poet Bianca Tarozzi invites us into her library and shares books that survived the devastating 2019 floods in Venice, and librarian Saralee Turner recites passages from Not Out of Hate by Myanmar writer Journal Kyaw Ma Ma Lay.

With these stories, the book embodies a collective thought, labour, readership, and a vital repository of human thought, lived realities, and community.

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The Singapore Pavilion at the International Art Exhibition is located in the iconic 46-hectare Arsenale complex. Probably the largest production centre in the world during the pre-industrial era, the Arsenale employed thousands of workers to build and arm the fleets that made the city-state of Venice a military and trading powerhouse during the Middles Ages and Renaissance. There are a total of 80 national pavilions this year, with five countries (Cameroon, Namibia, Nepal, Oman, and Uganda) participating for the first time. (Photo: Venice Tourism)

“The stories in the Pulp project point to different forms of courage, in action, speech, in documenting and in sharing,” explains Rao. “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 are not theirs, and may never be read, but are also more than mere symbolic representations of their civilisations, or some idealistic notion of humanness.”

Rao’s research focuses on that which has been deliberately obscured or pushed to the margins and, in the words of curator Ute Meta Bauer, pays homage to “the keepers of culture, of histories, of herstories, of identity” – the printers, librarians, and individuals determined to resist erasure and keep the flame alive.

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The Singapore Pavilion is in the Sale d’Armi in the heart of the Biennale site. (Photo: La Biennale di Venezia)

This theme of resistance to suppression and marginalisation also chimes with this year’s exhibition theme. Artistic director Cecilia Alemani settled on The Milk of Dreams as the central title, referencing a 1950s children’s book by British-born Mexican surrealist Leona Carrington (1917-2011) – one of the many overlooked women whose contribution to art history is honoured at the exhibition.

“La Biennale di Venezia was forced to postpone this edition by one year, an event that had only occurred during the two World Wars since 1895,” observes Cecilia Alemani. “So the very fact that this exhibition can open is somewhat extraordinary: its inauguration is not exactly the symbol of a return to normal life, but rather the outcome of a collective effort that seems almost miraculous.”

“The Biennale sums up all the things we have so sorely missed in the last two years: the freedom to meet people from all over the world, the possibility of travel, the joy of spending time together, the practice of difference, translation, incomprehension, and communion.”

National Arts Council Chief Executive Rosa Daniel summed up the importance of taking Singaporean art and culture out into the world: “Pulp III is an expression of Shubigi’s deep love and respect for the literary medium and its people, inspiring reflection on our diverse and shared histories as a modern, global village.

Through this presentation, Shubigi and Ute seek open connections across borders, cultures, and mediums at the Singapore Pavilion. The Singapore Pavilion affirms the Council’s commitment to promote and profile Singapore’s arts and artists overseas. We believe that Singapore’s participation will contribute to raising its profile as an emerging centre in Asia for artistic collaboration, production and research.”

The 59th International Arts Exhibition runs until 27 Nov. You can roam the Singapore Pavilion virtually via Facebook and Instagram (@NACSingapore), and get the latest updates through hashtags #SingaporeInVenice #BiennaleArte2022 and #TheMilkOfDreams. A return show will be held in Singapore in 2023.

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