Rao displays Pulp at Venice Biennale

TOH WEN LI

When artist Shubigi Rao was a child in New Delhi, her house was burgled. The robbers, finding no jewellery or money, carted off hundreds of books from her family's library. What they could not take with them, they vandalised, ripping off the covers.

For years after that, Ms Rao and her family would visit the Sunday book market, spotting their lost books among the wares on the pavement, buying them back if they could afford it.

"It was horrible," said Ms Rao, now 47. "We had multiple forms of loss but that was the worst."

Her parents were book lovers. Her "third parent" was the library at home, the titles of which ranged from now century-old children's encyclopaedias to her parents' collection of books on political history, literature, natural history, mythologies and religions.

This early love of reading, and brush with violence, planted seeds for what would much later become Pulp - a 10-year film, book and visual art exploration of the destruction of books, and the book as a site of resistance.

The latest iteration of Pulp - now at its midpoint - launched on Thursday at the Venice Biennale's Singapore pavilion.

Visitors can meander through a paper maze housing Ms Rao's new Pulp III book and 90-minute film Talking Leaves.

Ms Rao (left), who has lived in Singapore for 20 years and is now a citizen, is the first woman to represent the Republic in a solo show at the prestigious art festival.

The exhibition looks at Venice as well as Singapore - two historical centres of print. It is curated by Ute Meta Bauer, founding director of the NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore, and commissioned by the National Arts Council.

Ms Rao, a self-described introvert, admitted: "I get intimidated by people, especially those I admire. This project has challenged a lot of that, which is brilliant. My biggest fear is not introversion and meeting people, but allowing my brain to stagnate."

Pulp, she added, was an attempt to figure out her place in the world and her responsibilities in it.

"I couldn't sit back any more and watch horrors unfold on the news because, as we know, the destruction of culture goes hand in hand with the genocide of people."

Ms Rao grew up in Darjeeling and New Delhi against the backdrop of a militant movement, bomb blasts and the assassination of former Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi in 1984.

The main reason for starting Pulp, she said, was to try to understand "the depressing regularity of violence that people commit against one another, and against the languages, books and cultural repositories of others".

"The violent impulse - I still don't understand it."

This year's Biennale, also known as the 59th International Art Exhibition, is themed The Milk Of Dreams. Helmed by Italian Cecilia Alemani, the vast majority of the show's artists are women or gender-nonconforming.

 tohwenli@sph.com.sg

Pulp III: A Short Biography Of The Banished Book is open to the public in the Arsenale's Sale d'Armi building in Venice, Italy, from Saturday to Nov 27. A return show will be held in Singapore in 2023.

 
 
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