Growing up, Shubigi Rao considered the books in her home library her third parent. Even though her family lived in a remote part of the Himalayas in Darjeeling, India, in the 1970s, “I never felt lonely because I was lost in these books all the time—and I read whatever I could get my hands on,” shares the Mumbai-born Singaporean artist and writer.
“I was brought up very much by reading the words and voices of humanity across time and space—and it didn’t matter that [as a young Indian girl], I was the wrong audience for some of the books; I read and enjoyed them anyway, and I felt included,” she says. “There was no distance, whether geographical, political, ethnic, or over time or otherwise, as distance collapses [when you read].”
It was through books that some of her questions about the world were addressed, from the growing pains of dealing with bullying in school to the existential proof of god. And when Rao was confronted with India’s caste and class divides for the first time, her mother discussed the issues with her, before recommending “the literature that I should read”. From there, she discovered how humans think and rationalise difficult situations, and how ideas, beliefs and philosophies were shaped. “These lay the groundwork, or the foundation, for me when it comes to appreciating the best of our species,” she says.
Books, or literary works, continue to inspire her well into adulthood, and are central to her presentation at the 59th International Art Exhibition, La Biennale di Venezia (Biennale Arte 2022).
Returning after a one-year hiatus due to the pandemic, the Venice Biennale runs from April 23 to November 27. Conceived by Rao and curated by Ute Meta Bauer, the founding director of Nanyang Technological University’s Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore, the presentation, titled Pulp III: A Short Biography of the Banished Book, comprises a book, a film and a visual arts exploration of the destruction of books and its impact on the futures of knowledge. It also marks the midpoint of the artist’s second 10-year project, Pulp, which she started in 2014.