Meet Shubigi Rao, the first solo woman artist to represent Singapore at the Venice Biennale 2022

Contrary to popular opinion, print is not dead. At least not to Shubigi Rao, the first solo woman artist to represent Singapore at the ongoing Venice Biennale

Tracing the trajectories of book and library destruction, Pulp III: A Short Biography of the Banished Book—part of an extensive, decade-long project—delves into “the dichotomies of human stories and erasure”. The exhibition comprises three elements: a paper maze, a book documenting contemporary language loss and a multivocal film elegising the waning communities of print. Not content to let the atrocities committed against “the languages, books and cultural repositories of others” go unseen, Rao testifies—in a personal yet profound manner—of “the inherent power of the written and spoken word”; and in doing so, stands in solidarity with all those who will continue to defend it. 

Books have immense power. The loss of books is related to the loss of language and that is how silencing and erasure happens. When a language erodes, we lose all the knowledge, ways of thinking, culture and philosophy accumulated across generations. 

The best gift I have received was a set of encyclopedias my parents bought for me as a child. The set was so tattered they had it rebound in blue leather, with my name etched in tiny gold letters on the spine. It was whimsical, [mis]informative, wildly unfashionable and crammed with everything under the sun. Those volumes changed my life. I fell in love with discredited and outdated knowledge, with the energetic zest of human curiosity and endeavour. I still keep them and read them from time to time.

I was fairly younga pre-teen—when our house was burgled and robbers took hundreds of books from my family’s library. What they could not take with them, they vandalised. For several years after that, my family and I would visit the Sunday book market in Old Delhi, spotting our lost books among the wares on the pavement and buying them back if we could afford it. We experienced multiple forms of loss, but that was possibly the worst.

People sometimes ask me: “Your project is about books. But we are past books now, aren’t we?” I don’t privilege books above the virtual, nor do I think technology will save us. Technology is quickly obsolete. There are many examples of this: microfiche, floppies, VHS tapes, DVDs, Bluray… In the rush to digitise, we’ve relied on file formats that will not last as long as the physical book – which in some cases, has lasted hundreds and even thousands of years. The Internet is incredibly fragile too, with content disappearing all the time, problems of link rot, paywalled information, punitive licensing and so on. I believe in redundancies and back-ups of backups—and often, the best back-up is the physical copy

Anger and humour are the best bulwarks against the bedfellows of apathy and despair. I’m trying to find my place in the world—or what it is I can say and do about the injustices that make me angry and upset.