PRINT April 2022



Artefacts from S. Raoul’s final dig, 2013. From Shubigi Rao’s History’s Malcontents: The Life and Times of S. Raoul (Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore, 2013).

THIS IS A BANNER YEAR for Shubigi Rao. Born in Mumbai but based in Singapore, the artist is representing her adopted country at the Fifty-Ninth Venice Biennale and participating in the Asia Pacific Triennial. Rao is also the curator of the Fifth Kochi-Muziris Biennale, which will open in December after a delay of two years. Yet for someone wielding such clout, Rao has a prickly relationship with authority and the vectors of power and knowledge. She has rarely bowed to the pressures of the art market, bucking convention with back-to-back multiyear projects that defy the churn of the commercial gallery system.

The first of these endeavors was not intended to last as long as it did. Beginning in 2003, Rao assumed the fictive alter ego S. Raoul. (A devotee of Jorge Luis Borges, Rao is equally indebted to philosopher Hans Vaihinger’s idea of “useful fictions.”) The “inventor, theorist, writer, iconoclast and eccentric polymath” provided Rao with the ambiguously gendered cover to publish a series of pun-rich, intellectually indulgent hand-bound books with titles like Flotsam: An Elucidation of Jetsam (2005) and Bastardising Biography: An Extraordinary Initiative (2006), all bearing the same mischievous author photo showing the artist smirking in the half-hearted drag of a pencil mustache. Among Raoul’s crowning achievements was a trio of turgidly pedantic coffee-table books, published in 2006 and parodying the output of an overconfident armchair expert: Notions of Art: Thoughts from a Dot, a navel-gazing selection of essays and ruminations on creative production; Art of the Americas: Secrets Unearthed from Levels Seven to Two, whose back-cover blurb touts it as the “musings of a caged, barely lit but well-ventilated mind”; and Art of the United Kingdom: The Burden of British Art, which consists of an extensive list of all the objects of non-British origin in the holdings of the British Museum. Raoul later dabbled in neuroscience for The Tuning Fork of the Mind (2008), an elaborate (and entirely fabricated) study of the degenerative effects of viewing contemporary art on the human brain. The accompanying installation—complete with a devious DIY “brain-wave scanner” straight out of Lost in Space, with zany blinking lights and a hidden disk drive playing a soundtrack of dogs barking and toilets flushing—eventually made its way to the 2008 Singapore Biennale, where the security team of a former prime minister ripped out its wires on opening day to ensure there was no bomb. (Incidentally, Rao felt that this ludicrous gesture completed the piece.) In 2013, the artist memorialized Raoul’s life and works in “The Retrospectacle of S. Raoul, by Shubigi Rao,” an exhibition organized by the Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore. Its catalogue, History’s Malcontents: The Life and Times of S. Raoul, was a biography-cum-compendium lovingly rendered by Raoul’s ever-devoted protégée, Rao.

Cover of Cukaria (Qalam Press, 1949). From Shubigi Rao’s Pulp III: An Intimate Inventory of the Banished Book (Rock Paper Fire, 2022).

The feeling was mutual. Raoul was purportedly a great admirer and collector of the artist’s work; in fact, as Rao pithily remarks, “it was also what killed him.” As the legend holds, Raoul died attempting “to negotiate space in a cultural context”; more specifically, he tripped over Rao’s River of Ink, 2008. The ambitious project saw Rao fill a hundred hand-bound books with a personal epistemology, compiling and categorizing all the knowledge she had gleaned from a life of reading. She then soaked these books in ink, saturating the pages beyond legibility. The work commemorated the razing of the House of Wisdom during the siege of Baghdad in 1258, when the rivers were said to have run black with ink, then red with blood. This act of unfathomable biblioclasm effectively decimated several centuries of thought, scholarship, and poetry; in doing so, it helped tip the scales, allowing other empires to eclipse the vast achievements of the Islamic Golden Age.

Intentionally or not, the work that killed poor S. Raoul would give rise to Rao’s next long-term endeavor, Pulp: A Short Biography of the Banished Book, 2014–. As always, the artist chooses her words carefully. In keeping with the agentive potential she assigns books, Rao explicitly labels her work a “biography,” rather than a history. Moreover, at a time when book banning has once again reared its ugly head, Rao’s use of the term banished angles for something else; what she sets out to survey are not just victims of cultural warfare but banished books, those presumably sent packing from their respective Edens.

Shubigi Rao, Talking Leaves, 2022, HD video, color, sound, 90 minutes.

Pulp teems with a deep love of the printed page, while openly embracing the complicated edges of bibliophilia and the darker legacies of print. “If our history is anything to go by,” Rao writes, “all books are predestined ashes.” And yet preservation efforts can have unintended consequences. Like Nabokov and his butterflies, print has a nasty habit of fixing to the page ideas that should remain in motion. “The irony of folk tales bound in a book, on a shelf in a library, is an obvious example of the cessation of the evolving, the silencing of the collective oral,” Rao argues. She also points to the tyranny of the textbook, a means of entrenching narratives in the service of empire. To avoid reproducing such hegemonies, Rao has designed her project to have multiple flexible installments. Like her body of work devoted to S. Raoul, Pulp was intended to span ten years, with research beginning in 2014 and a total of five volumes issued at two-year intervals thereafter, but Covid-19 has disrupted this timeline. As of now, the series consists of two published books, with the third set to debut as part of the artist’s presentation at the Singapore pavilion in Venice. The first volume, released in 2016, introduces several of the key thinkers and case studies that frame Rao’s inquiry. Some speak to violence against books as an act of war (such as the 1992 destruction of the National Library of Bosnia-Herzegovina in Sarajevo); others reveal perversity in the fetishism of the printed page (such as in Leuven, Belgium, where rare books recovered from the 1914 bombing of the library are kept under glass and would turn to dust if anyone ever tried to read them).

Rescued books from now-defunct archive of women partisans and genocide survivors, Venice, 2021, from Shubigi Rao’s Pulp III: An Intimate Inventory of the Banished Book (Rock Paper Fire, 2022).

In the introduction to the first volume of Pulp, Rao writes of the act of destroying books—pulping—as a means of turning things into a “sterile mush.” The artist pulls off a similar mastication, condensing thousands of references and observations, but Rao’s text never feels sterile; if anything, there’s an aura of active contamination, amplified by the red ink of notes originally handwritten in the margins. Rao’s a wily writer, and you get the sense that she likes to flirt with danger. Her sentences wink and smirk; her presence is constant, and unlike S. Raoul, she never loses herself in academic jargon. It’s easy to take issue with the figure of the artist-researcher (the entire S. Raoul project did just that). The position affords one just enough gravitas to feel justified in holding forth on history, theory, or politics, and just enough levity to evade accountability. Rao owns these privileges and limitations. She styles herself as a flaneur in her own brain, sharing asides on coelacanths and the Koh-i-Noor diamond and pausing to admire the sunset in the bear diorama at the American Museum of Natural History. An omnivorous curiosity impels her Arcades-style stroll through the wonders of the library. “Flipping pages,” she writes,

always trumps scrolling or keyword searches for serendipitous discovery. . . . I have yet to meet an algorithm that can successfully suggest, with similar unpredictability beyond the initial field of inquiry. Bookstore or library browsing is a pleasure because it is capricious and dangerous—there are parts of oneself dormant that wake hungry and ravening when we bump into the unexpected book.

Shubigi Rao, The Wood for the Trees, 2018, HD video, color, sound, 16 minutes 22 seconds.

While Pulp I bristles with a thorny wit and plenty of Borges references, Pulp II (2018) marks a dramatic tonal shift. During the research process leading up to Pulp II, the artist came to understand that the stories she was collecting were not her own. Framing the book as a “Visual Bibliography,” Rao steps back as the ever-present author, clearing space for the voices of her collaborators. Prior to this volume, Rao hadn’t been terribly interested in truth; she had always gotten more leverage from fiction. Here, a series of vignettes acquaint us with all-too-real figures, ranging from the anonymous librarian who misclassifies a controversial paperback as “rare” so as to protect it from abuse, to the team behind Public Library, a digital shadow archive advocating for open access through mindful piracy, to firsthand accounts of the human chain that librarians and volunteers formed to rescue books from Sarajevo’s burning library, risking their own lives so that the cultures recorded on those pages might endure. If Pulp I had time for inside jokes, Pulp II seems staggered by the unexpected power of the narratives it contains, essentially reminding us that libricide matters only because we cling to books as a means of survival beyond the body.

Shubigi Rao, The Wood for the Trees, 2018, HD video, color, sound, 16 minutes 22 seconds. Production still.

The Biennale provides a fresh context and wider audience for Pulp’s pandemic-delayed third release, which seeks to reclaim agency for the printed word. With limited travel opportunities, Rao had to adjust her way of working; no longer the flaneur, following one avenue to another, she had to lay out a direct path in advance. Focusing on Singapore and Venice as historical publishing hubs, Rao takes up the case of two vanishing languages: Cimbrian, which traditionally flourished in the highlands just north of Venice, and Kristang, which today has fewer than a thousand speakers sprinkled through Malaysia and Singapore. Cimbrian may persist on the page, but it has slipped out of vernacular usage, whereas Kristang, the last of the Portuguese creole languages to survive in Southeast Asia, encapsulates the geopolitical tensions and asymmetries of its region. Exploring other power imbalances in print, the artist makes room for the stories of women who write about other women (her decision to do so now has particular resonance, as Rao and curator Ute Meta Bauer will make up the Singapore pavilion’s first female-led team). Above all, Pulp III (2022) offers its author a chance to digest the research of the past five years. If, as Rao has argued, one negative feature of print is that it endeavors to ossify the fluid processes of knowledge production, the artist’s multivolume format has allowed her the space to evolve alongside her research.

Kate Sutton is coeditor of international reviews for Artforum.