Shubigi Rao, Singapore

A free downloadable gigantic book – gigantic for the epics it depicts and the volume of its power – is accompanying a documentary movie plunged in paper maze enveloped room: it is a concentrate of what a single woman, an artist, can inspire to establish, once again, the importance of written word in a dysfunctional world where cancel culture and banishment are the new holes in which democracy, dignity, cultural freedom and traditions disappear at every latitude increasing gender and national divides.

Shubigi Rao – the women author, the visual artist – is carrying on the Pulp longterm project: its third chapter of five comes after the deluge of pandemics all over the nations and, with it, she represents Singapore at the 2022 Venice Art Biennale. Beside to read online the book, you could also pick a free copy in print at her show that can be visited until next November 27. 

As per the documentary, the book narrates the stories of people (and places) of this world where a strenuous defense of books, ideas, freedom of speech and of education, universal literacy is advocated. From a bookseller in Venice to another in Berlin, from a librarian in East Europe to an Armenian cultural center…

‘The stories in the Pulp project point to different forms of courage, in action, speech, in documenting and in sharing – she declared – 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, but are also more than mere symbolic representations of their civilizations, or some idealistic notion of humanness. 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 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.’

We already knew Pulp is a state of mind, a way to counteract and much more than just visual art but we were not ready, once entering the exhibition, to the subtle and tremendous power it gives back in enabling each viewer to make efforts in the land were h/s lives to make written word the ultimate stage of freedom to defend. 

According to the artist, each book piece is a ‘time-traveler’ and a germinator of change. When we entered the exhibition the first opening day, it was plenty of volumes and now its spatial configuration deeply changed.

We had a wonderful, condensed conversation with Shubigi.

Your life in a few words, exactly from where it starts…

I grew up in the Himalayan mountains (India) and when I was 27 I moved to Singapore: I’m now a citizen of this country and work there for many years as an artist and writer. 

My childhood spent living in the Indian mountains and jungle was very important to me because make me understand that our species is not the most important of this planet.

What about the relation with biography in terms of ‘asset’ of your artistic and cultural practice? For instance the third book of this life project opens up with hints of your childhood and the library that you had at home. Every son and child’s library stands for a big and consistent brick in the shape of what they will become in the near or distant future…

Yes, I grew up with a very lovely library, my parents used to save abandoned, discarded or auctioned books. This was an eclectic, interesting library with a big focus on literature and nature. I so grew up surrounded by books that were my teddy bear, literally! It was destroyed when I was very young and I remember that feeling of the loss of those books. That’s is the reason I do this project, the loss is why I am able to connect with people while I develop the project. I remember what means to try and figure out ‘why injustice can flourish’, ‘why violence is so easy to our species’ and I want to understand this looking through the medium of studying books and libraries destruction. If you just look at the silence through prints, speeches, the muslimization of people and community, you will see that is also the biography of our species which is that we all set our narratives of others.

What do you think about cancel culture, so popular now even in contemporary (or old) art: is that also part of this incredible self destruction of the species?

Well, cancel culture is always existed, first of all. As it is used now, it is a way attack to the so called left. 

I don’t really like the term but the reason it is called like that it’s because it has been always there and the people who canceled the most are states, religious authority – men against women and queers: if you don’t fit into the mainstream you would be canceled. 

Who’s banning the books in Tennessee (USA)? The religious authorities, the state.

The idea of being canceled is ridiculous, being held accountable for your actions is not cancel culture, is the inquisition. Cancel culture is the burning of libraries and the destruction of books, cancel culture is ensuring that women can publish a book if pretending to have a male name.

What about the long form of this project, ten years? Why did you choose it? Because of the kind of audience of contemporary art? Or because you meant to launch it beyond the boundaries of this discipline?

It is a ten years project because to deal with this matter you need time, it’s not something you can make it simple because you have an exhibition coming up. The exhibition is only a moment where you meet and see how people receive your book. There is hope, naive or perhaps, that your work will be responsible in helping effect social change, of course we artist hope that! When you write is the same: you don’t write for a narcissist reason, you always hope to resonate with and contribute to your reader. 

The ultimate reason for which I do this is because I cannot not do this project: if I would not engage in this project I will be part of the great silence against injustice. 

I am trying really hard to amplify the voice of other people, the people I travel to and I meet, the people I film, the people who share their stories with me, so the contemporary art world is just an accidental place – I think of it sometimes – where these stories can be embraced. There is a lot of offer in the arts, but i have to say that only as an artist I can bring the evidence of these stories: if I was only a writer and a filmmaker I would be medium specific and not having such a reverberation of my message. As an artist you can do anything. 

It is absolutely liberating and I think I don’t have any illusions about the art market and the predatory way in which it works but it also a place where you can have a book like this (she handles a copy of the third chapter of Pulp, the pavilion is full of visitors: this interview has been set in the first hours of the Venice Art Biennale opening).

You were chosen to represent Singapore at the Venice Art Biennale, still based on ‘national pavilions’ differently from what happens in younger art festivals. You were not born in this country and this is maybe also another sign of the fading of this ‘national-based’ selection. But it is also true that Singapore is a country where diversity is welcomed and is a mix in the history.

Are you confident that Singapore – as a city state – can express also in the near future something different than the neighboring countries in terms of freedom even if it is not a really ‘free’ place?

I don’t like to compare Singapore with its neighbors because it was part of Malesia until very recently.

I don’t believe in separation, I don’t believe that we should compete one against each other. It should not be so destructive in the way it is played at national level, even in communities and families or in workplaces competition is actually very destructive because it makes you to prioritize the wrong things; you don’t do things because they have intrinsic values and lead to a better social stage but because you want to be better than your neighbor and it is not a good reason! I don’t believe in competition.

Having said that, Singapore artists are incredibly articulated, we all live in a small city state and we  always listen to other artists, people and writers from other states, other places and regions: we all foster a continuous dialogue and discussions and this makes even more exciting to be working there.

What is your favorite places or corners – secret or not – where you like to read in Singapore?

I love all the community libraries in Singapore. I spent may first months when I settled there not believing how gorgeous they were; I was catching buses to run from one to another. There is a brilliant library culture for a so tiny city-state, there are hundreds!

Now that I become old and a more solid, quiet reader, I prefer my tiny space at home with my dogs.

What do you feel to have achieved and learnt until the present time?

That there is not enough time to learn enough through this life. All we can do is to listen to each other, read and listen.

Cover picture by Alfonse Chiu, 2022






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