Unearthing Cultural Realities with Shubigi Rao

Artist and writer Shubigi Rao’s interests include archaeology, neuroscience, libraries, archival systems, histories and lies, literature and violence, ecologies and natural history. Rao has also been featured at international biennials and festivals such as the March Meets 2019 as part of the 14th Sharjah Biennial; the 4th Kochi Biennale, India (2018); the 10th Taipei Biennial, Taipei, Taiwan (2016); 3rd Pune Biennale, Pune, India (2017); Singapour Mon Amour, Paris, France (2015); Digital Arts Festival, Copenhagen, Denmark (2013); and the 2nd Singapore Biennale, Singapore (2008). She is currently Curator for the upcoming Kochi-Muziris Biennale 2020.

You’ve been appointed as curator for the fifth edition of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale. What do you regard as your primary cultural and curatorial responsibilities in this role?

As the first curator for the Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KMB) not based in India, and as a Singaporean, I see this as an opportunity to spotlight the vivid practices and discourses in South and Southeast Asia (while simultaneously examining the terms), especially in relation to the global south. 

I see the KMB as being more than a cultural staging area; it is a crucible within which these intersecting discourses and practices can occur. As a possible knowledge commons, the conversations that would emerge from the exhibition, the seminars and other programming would be vital in demonstrating the diversity of strategies that artists employ. Though we may share the same concerns of land, migration, the climate crisis, rising neo-fascism and the future of technology for instance, we diverge in our methods and approaches in thinking and in making. This is what I’ve been looking for during my curatorial research and travel over the last six months. This diversity of strategies, methods, and production can be emphasised and shared. It is not a new approach, and is evident in places and practices such as the significant work increasingly being done by artist collectives. A powerful example would be the multiple acts of remembering and reintegrating precolonial community-based thinking and practices in performance. Active decolonising initiatives, unearthing of overlooked histories and bodies of knowledge – all these are of keen interest to my plans for the biennale, as they have always been in my work as an artist. 

The idea and site of a biennale often trigger critical discussions around the spectacle of exhibition and how localities are accessed, read, and exploited. To challenge this you speak about “reposition(ing) discourse and practice through acknowledging intersecting contexts”. What does that look like?

Given the scale of the Biennale (touted as South Asia’s largest arts festival), it can be challenging to ensure that the biennale doesn’t descend into a flattening spectacle, and the invariable fatigue of encountering so many artworks doesn’t devolve into shallow readings. While there are multiple ways to alleviate this, it becomes vital to recognise the importance of site as extending context. It is important to ensure that sites, especially heritage sites with immense historical baggage, do not subsume the works displayed.

Ideally, sites can provide sensory or cognitive cues to viewers that would, I hope, make the reading of regional specificities more fluid. A lot of contexts intersect – the most obvious one would be the similar and divergent ways that post-colonial nations continue to grapple with generational trauma, or the way so much of the global south continues to cater to the north, in terms of resources, but also in the neo-colonising of our nations as ideological battlegrounds. It isn’t simply about the ‘balance of power’ – itself a hierarchical phrase that denies other forms of power within communities and collectives – but about acknowledging that the rhetoric that privileges certain groups over others is already being reframed or dismantled, and a key aspect of this reframing involves the acknowledgement of intersecting contexts. 

One of the roles of cultural institutions, artists, writers, academics, etc. is to grapple with the issues of their times. In doing so it is easy to become disenchanted with, or apathetic about the state of our societies, our collective futures, and the planet. Yet I would argue that our fears for the future do not detract from our abilities to think and to make, but fuel our yearning to articulate through art the complexities of our realities. This affirming power of artistic work, no matter the medium, has been a keystone in my practice, and will continue to inform my curatorial work for the KMB. The ability of our species to flourish artistically in fraught and dire situations, this refusal in the face of disillusionment to disavow our poetry, our languages, our art and music, our optimism and humour, is a stubbornness to be celebrated. The communities that come together to make this happen are to be celebrated. This is what I hope to foreground in the next edition of the KMB.

What are your thoughts on how the term “Southeast Asia” is used to approach and frame the paradigm of art and cultural production in this region?

In formulating the curatorial structure of a biennale such as this, it is important to consider the problem of how we construct region. A key issue, for me, will always be the dangers of the appeal to authority, or the claim to speak on behalf of a region from a position of knowledge that, as a curator, is sometimes expected. Southeast Asia is a difficult term to reconcile, as it would appear to bring together states that diverge quite radically, but also given the complex geo-politics, histories, and cultures with porous ‘boundaries’ here, it presents them as a supposedly unified geographical region.

For me, the term is especially troubling because it assumes that we must read this rich tapestry, this multiplicity, primarily as state (or nation) first. This is especially applicable when we see how the interaction between cultures or communities is invariably framed as transnational or statist, where national identity is regarded as the signifier of all parties in the conversation. At the same I do recognise the importance of cultural production (in thinking, writing, and making) in postcolonial states having to grapple with what constitutes statehood, nation-building, and regional allyship. 

As an artist you’ve worked extensively with ink, from fluid ink renderings on paper that evoke old natural history illustrations, to publishing Pulp, a film, book and visual art project, in five volumes. What is your relationship to the medium and substance of ink?

I enjoy working in ink for many reasons, primarily for its unpredictability and because it resists control. I’ve worked with ink in its more fluid form as well as in etching and intaglio printmaking, and of course in bookmaking. I find it embodies the diffusion of contradictory impulses, of the impossibility of perfect clarity and communication. Ink is indelible, yet archivally fragile and prone to fading. My drawings hold that tension – from the shortness of the word to the expansiveness of bodies of knowledge signified by that word. Ink signifies the history of writing, drawing and print, but is destructive as well. In referring to the historical destruction of libraries (in this case the specific destruction of the House of Wisdom in 13thcentury Baghdad), I made River of Ink in 2008, an installation of a hundred handmade books filled with drawings and text about a hundred different fields of knowledge and then soaked the books in the same ink, destroying most of the content.

Shubigi Rao, River of Ink (detail), 2008

Your work is also frequently shaped by the notion and passage of time, particularly Pulp, a project that is 10 years long and that examines the history or histories of book destruction. How would you describe the character of time? How have your motivations for and sentiments towards a long-term project like Pulp shifted and transformed since you first began it?

We measure our lives in decades, and this is my second ten-year project. I do sometimes feel trapped — I miss making ironic work, playful and bizarre works (in the past I’ve even made satirical board games). Now, it’s just this project — which is why I can’t restrict myself in terms of media — I’m publishing five books, because one is not enoughand am making multiple short films and will make a couple of feature-length ones, or perhaps just a mountain of never-to-be-edited testimony.

The commitment to a project such as this, spanning the whole history of book and library destruction, and the history of books as resistance, is almost absolute, because the subject matter is so dire and demands that I not be removed from it. We have a fear of commitment because we have to live with our decisions, and I want to be able to live with this decision – to live with a project that would haunt me.  

Shubigi Rao, Pulp: A Short Biography of the Banished Book Vol. I, 2016. Photo credit: Maria Clare Khoo.

As for my shifting sentiments towards the length of the Pulp project, I’m reminded of what I wrote in 2015, in the afterword to the first volume of Pulp: “This has been an impossible book to write. To convince myself, I’ve had to play the long con, telescoping it from an eighteen-month project to one that now spans a neat decade of my existence (paltry in the grand scheme, I know), and broken into ‘bite-sized chunks’ (ha) of two years each. This is a hire-purchase scheme, where each instalment involves a year and a half of travel, research, filming, recording, then crunching numbers into a cohesive tome with aesthetically arranged text and image (all balanced just so), with adequate academic cred and literary flourish, and where the outrage, anger and despair are tempered with humour and a pretend-objectivity… As I write this, I think of ISIS and what they have done to Hatra, Mosul and more. But more than that, I think of how dated this example of ISIS will have become, because of how much more will be lost (and how fresh tyrants are yet to be hatched) between this moment and the time these five books, this project, will be complete. This is a futile chronicle, but at the very least, I hope to point to that body, that corpus, that library, the book as collective humanity.”

What comes to mind when you are thinking about the forces driving art production in Singapore?

While the primary drivers may appear to still be heavily market-driven or state-supported, there are heartening outliers. It is gratifying to see the work of artist-initiated and -managed spaces like soft/Wall/studs, for instance, and for the programming they do that ranges far outside of standard exhibition production.

Who are some of the art collectives in the Southeast and wider South Asian regions you feel excited about and challenged by?

Too early in my curatorial research to disclose, but I would like to mention the effectiveness of collectives in decolonising and recording subsumed histories. I’m excited by the growth and quality of art historians, archivists and writers in Southeast Asia now, a number of whom are also working with living artists and artists spaces. 

Rao is a panellist for the S.E.A. Focus talk The Future of the Singapore Art Scene alongside Usha Chandradas, Connie Wong, and Honor Harger. Click here to find out more.