The world is not short of artists at work on sprawling and multifarious projects, but even in that category Shubigi Rao stands out. Since 2014, the Mumbai-born, Singapore-based artist has been pursuing Pulp: A Short Biography of the Banished Book, a constellation of films, drawings, photos and a projected five books. The project centres on the precarity of literature and language around the world — the threats to the knowledge and communities that they represent — and reflects heartening efforts towards their preservation. Rao had planned to get it all done in a decade, but the pandemic delayed that. She is now just over midway through and intends to finish in 2026.
Pulp is “massive because I don’t know when to stop, frankly”, Rao says from her home in Singapore. “A lot of people think I have ambition. It’s not — ” She stops, a rare pause in her rapid delivery. “My ideas are always immense. And I just, you know, I just do them.”
It is the evening of her 48th birthday, but Rao has only recently woken up. She spent the previous night working, and there is ink on her fingers from finishing a piece that will be in the Encounters section of Art Basel Hong Kong (March 23-25). Titled “The River of Ink II”, it consists of 300 books that she has written in and drawn in, and drowned in ink, and it alludes to the story that the Tigris turned black in 1258 when the invading Mongol army threw the contents of Baghdad’s library into its waters. Rao holds up a few of the midnight-coloured volumes. One has the word “confetti” on its cover. “When you burn books,” she says, “the ashes that rain down, I call it confetti at a fascist parade.” She opens another to reveal a poetic sentence in silver: “Forgetting is the inevitable result of all human experience.”
You could see Pulp as a bulwark against that process. Rao’s latest volume, Pulp III, and a related film, Talking Leaves, record her interviews with far-flung librarians, activists, archivists and cultural guardians, such as a Singaporean writer who learned the endangered Kristang language and a Bosnian firefighter who battled the devastating 1992 blaze at the National Library in Sarajevo. Representing Singapore at last year’s Venice Biennale, Rao offered free copies of the book and screened the film. The art dealer Fabio Rossi stopped by and was enchanted. She is “so full of interesting things, things that I am interested in, too”, he says. “Books, literature, censorship, destruction.” From March 18, his Rossi & Rossi gallery in Hong Kong will stage a survey of her art, an opportunity to take stock of one of today’s most freewheeling art careers.
Born in 1975 in Mumbai, Rao grew up in Darjeeling, then New Delhi, where thieves ransacked a library that her environmentalist mother and civil-servant father had assembled. In the mid-1980s, they moved with their three children to Kaladhungi, an area in the Himalayas rich with wildlife. “We were never harmed by a single thing, but we were shot at by poachers,” Rao says. “Poachers also tried to set fire to our land because my parents’ idea of an outing was to take us in the jeep and chase down poachers.” They lived in a tent, then a hut, sans running water.
The historical and the personal regularly commingle in Rao’s practice, just as art has been intertwined with her life from early on. She was bullied at school, and “it was difficult at home”, she says, but she found solace in reading. “Growing up in India as a woman is — it’s not advisable, at least not for someone like me, who didn’t have the defence mechanisms in place,” she says. When it was time for college, she opted to study English via correspondence, travelling India on a motorcycle, disguised as a boy — “a lot of adventures, instead of sitting in class”, she says.
That disguise presaged her first big project, which she began after moving to Singapore about 20 years ago and deciding to go to art school: a decade of presenting material that she attributed to a man, S Raoul. He was a satire of an obscurantist scholar and his pursuits included creating an immortal jellyfish and inventing a device to prove that contemporary art can induce mental derangement. In this feminist provocation, Rao billed herself as “his protégé, his confidante, his collaborator”. Regrettably, Rao’s first “River of Ink” (2008) installation, which had 100 books, led to his death. “He tripped over this and broke his neck,” she says cheerfully.
Now operating fully under her own name, Rao has become an in-demand figure from her base in Singapore. (Asked about the city-state’s own history of censorship, she says that she addresses it in “subterranean ways”, while contending that “there are far more books banned in certain states in the USA, for instance”.) She will have a solo show at the Rockbund Art Museum in Shanghai in November and late last year she curated India’s Kochi-Muziris Biennale, which was marked by serious logistical issues and financial shortfalls, leading its president to apologise. (Rao is hesitant to comment — “I’m still too close to it, and things are still not OK” — but says she is proud of the show and moved by how artists in India rallied to assist with the beleaguered installation process.)
Rao has a few more years left of Pulp, but she already has an idea for another decade-long endeavour, she says. What propels her? While discussing her childhood, she says that “over the years, I accumulated an immense amount of anger. And this anger and rage is very vital and very important. I think it’s an incredibly powerful force.” Some of her S Raoul work has a darkly comic bite, but in Pulp that force yields a moral clarity that is potent yet understated. Her vision is expansive, yes, but this is fundamentally intimate art, focused on championing people who are doing crucial work or simply displaying the majesty of nature.
When asked about what she aims to accomplish through Pulp, Rao is quick to say that it takes at least 100 or 150 years for movements to create real change. But then she offers a few thoughts. “I hope enough people understand that the softer, quieter things are really important,” she says, “and much more powerful and enduring than the bombast and spectacle and the noise. That’s my approach to art-making, as well: less spectacle, and perhaps more thoughtfulness.”
March 18-May 15, rossirossi.com