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November 2022

Field Notes: Shubigi Rao, “Pulp III: A Short Biography of the Banished Book,” Singapore Pavilion, 59th Venice Biennale

Fiona Yu-Lun Hsu

Shubigi Rao, Talking Leaves, 2022. Single-channel video with color and 4+1 sound. Installation view, “Pulp III: A Short Biography of the Banished Book,” Singapore Pavilion, 59th Venice Biennale, April 23–November 27, 2022.

Shubigi Rao, Book Pulp III: A Short Biography of the Banished Book, Volume III of V, 2022. Book printed and bound in Venice, first edition, 5000 copies. Installation view, “Pulp III: A Short Biography of the Banished Book,” Singapore Pavilion, 59th Venice Biennale, April 23–November 27, 2022.

Shubigi Rao, “Pulp III: A Short Biography of the Banished Book.” Installation view, Singapore Pavilion, 59th Venice Biennale, April 23–November 27, 2022.

Shubigi Rao, Being a Brief Guide to the Banished Book, 2017. Ink on paper. Installation view, “Pulp III: A Short Biography of the Banished Book,” Singapore Pavilion, 59th Venice Biennale, April 23–November 27, 2022.

Shubigi Rao, “Pulp III: A Short Biography of the Banished Book.” Installation view, Singapore Pavilion, 59th Venice Biennale, April 23–November 27, 2022.

Shubigi Rao, “Pulp III: A Short Biography of the Banished Book.” Installation view, Singapore Pavilion, 59th Venice Biennale, April 23–November 27, 2022.

For more than a century, the Venice Biennale has been the foremost exhibition of the globalized art world, and recently, every two years—or three, given the latest pandemic interruption—the central exhibition and national presentations have gestured toward inclusivity, albeit through exhibitions that have been assembled through processes of curatorial exclusion. We might also understand the Biennale as an institution of knowledge generation driven by organizational mechanisms, and within such mechanisms, visitors must mobilize their bodies, senses, and knowledges to dialogue with the works and ideas it presents. “The Milk of Dreams,” the central exhibition of the Biennale curated by Cecilia Alemani, invites an unprecedented engagement with art in its posthumanist reframing of artistic narratives and broader art historical trajectories. Paradoxically yet fruitfully, Alemani’s curatorial vision and the rigorous conceptual framing of “The Milk of Dreams” counters the hegemonic narratives of knowledge production and dissemination, exposing the viewer to alternative and compelling accounts of art and our world.

Shubigi Rao, Talking Leaves, 2022. Single-channel video with color and 4+1 sound. Installation view, “Pulp III: A Short Biography of the Banished Book,” Singapore Pavilion, 59th Venice Biennale, April 23–November 27, 2022.

“Pulp III: A Short Biography of the Banished Book,” Shubigi Rao’s presentation at the Singapore Pavilion curated by Ute Meta Bauer, is, like “The Milk of Dreams,” designed to shift perceptions. Installed in the Arsenale, the sixteenth-century brick-and-stone former barracks, “Pulp III” unfolds in a space enveloped in layers of white paper hung from the ceiling, a kind of minimalist scenography that relieves the sensory overload created by the other Biennale exhibitions. Here, Rao has carefully relayed her exhibition’s narrative in text and drawings, a stack of books arranged into a square block, and a collage of sounds and images from her mythopoetic film. Rao’s book Pulp III: An Intimate Inventory of the Banished Book (2022) and film Talking Leaves (2022) are essential elements of her exhibition, and their presentation in the space evokes the experience of reading, encouraging slow-looking and total immersion. Five thousand copies of the first edition of Pulp III were printed and bound in Venice, and, upon leaving their contact information and travel destinations, visitors to the pavilion may take one with them, thereby translating into practice Rao’s conception of the book as a vessel of knowledge that travels across temporal-spatial boundaries. Rao’s ninety-minute-long Talking Leaves meditates on the historical connectedness of print communities, and cutting between archival footage, artistic drawings and texts, sounds of chanting and talking, and images of narrators and artistic imageries, evinces a polyphonic kind of storytelling. Beneath the narratives and counternarratives in the book and the film lies an ephemeral sense of loss and lament on the displaced histories of print and knowledge.

Since 2014, Rao, an artist-writer, has been at work on a project about books, libraries, and archives of various forms and their destructions by human actors. In doing so, she has traveled the globe, visiting libraries, archives, and public and private collections of publications and has engaged in conversations and interviews with people at the forefront of work on knowledge dissemination and eradication. [1]1
To name a few, in Pulp III, Federico Bucci, a Venitian antiquarian bookstore owner; Melissa De Silva, a Singaporean writer on Kristang, the language of Singaporean Eurasians; and Dana Haddad and Muhannad Qaiconie, cofounders of Baynatna, the Arabic-language library in Berlin. The participants for the “Pulp III” project are listed in the exhibition booklet, on the exhibition’s website, .
Rao works in multiple media to record these global narratives that transcend geographical borders and demonstrate cross-cultural historical connections. Her book Pulp not only accounts a decade-long journey of a bibliophilic research, but also, more significantly, epitomizes Rao’s resistance to knowledge loss. [2]2
In an interview, Rao recounted growing up in a bibliophilic family and with a private library of rare titles collected by her parents. The library was destroyed in a home invasion. See “Shubigi Rao: Stories of Creation and Destruction,” Art Asia Pacific, May 2022, 45–47.
Mobilizing against this tendency, Pulp is a critical response to our time, when, despite the potential for digital communication infrastructures to allow for a proliferation of diverse thought, the opposite appears to be true.

For her presentation in Venice, Rao has dug into her work with print communities, and connected them with the shared print histories of Venice and Singapore. Both cities are trading ports and regional print centers that have played crucial roles in print history: Venice as the birthplace of the paperback, a binding technique that democratized knowledge, and Singapore as a node of the Malay print world in the nineteenth century, when diverse cultures in the region collided and merged. In the exhibition, Pulp and Talking Leaves link Singapore and Venice with other cities around the world whose print communities and histories Rao has documented over the last five years. Both works present stories from the front lines of knowledge preservation and from libraries, archives, and marginal cultures: An antiquarian bookseller in Venice invokes episodes from the history of book banishment as far back as the early sixteenth century. Venetian women writers and translators speak about personal libraries and archives as forms of resistance. Writers, linguists, and movement organizers provide perspectives on Kristang and Cimbrian, endangered languages of the Malay peninsula and northern Italy. Historians and researchers reflect on the cross-cultural depth and intimacy of European, Malay, and regional print centers as spaces of cultural interaction. Stories relayed by archivists of resistance and nonviolence movements in Europe resonate with those of their peers in Asia. Cosmopolitanism permeates the individual and collective undertakings of knowledge preservation that Rao pieces together, and her works contemplate the human impulse to destroy and, conversely, to resist destruction.

Shubigi Rao, Talking Leaves, 2022. Single-channel video with color and 4+1 sound. Installation view, “Pulp III: A Short Biography of the Banished Book,” Singapore Pavilion, 59th Venice Biennale, April 23–November 27, 2022.

“Pulp III” is immersive and emotionally engaging thanks to the histories articulated by the different custodians of knowledge that Rao engaged and the sense of loss, lament, and contemplation that undergirds their work. The emotional resonance between the film and the book is enhanced by other elements of Rao’s Pulp project presented in the Singapore Pavilion. At the entrance to the exhibition is Rao’s mixed-media drawing on paper Confetti: Ashes from a Fascist Parade (2013), which refers to the 1933 book-burning campaign by the Nazi regime. On the paper wall behind this book monument is Being a Brief Guide to the Banished Book (2017), a map in ink that shows the artist’s genealogy of banished books, which depicts texts and literary movements as nodes and branches that grow into a knowledge tree. These works trace the artist’s physical, philosophical, political and affective path through the histories relayed in Pulp III and Talking Leaves and connect, cross-reference, and open up diverse narratives, voices, and contemplations on knowledge preservation and destruction. As well, these works facilitate the spectators’ engagement with the artist’s journey. Through its form and content, “Pulp III” inspires proactive spectatorship and readership and as such turns viewers’ presence and participation into acts of witnessing and resistance.

In the context of the Biennale, Rao’s profound and quietly radical exhibition presents a matrix of stories, thoughts, messages, and acts re-worlding. The “banishment” in the show’s title refers not only to books and libraries but also to the exclusion, neglect, and suppression of nonconforming ideas, a contingency that is no less prevalent in our time than in the past. “Pulp III” articulates unresolved questions on human impulses toward violence and destruction and demonstrates a conviction shared by Rao, her narrators, and perhaps her audience that despite the precariousness of the future, the preservation of the past and its knowledges is more essential than ever. In the pursuit of alternative knowledge repositories, communities, and kinships that counter monolithic historical narratives, “Pulp III” announces a call to action against the forces in our time that foreclose nuanced and expansive understandings of the world around us. Rao’s art seeks to dismantle the epistemic hegemony and accepted forms of knowledge, a questioning of authority that echoes across this Venice Biennale.

Fiona Yu-Lun Hsu lives and works in Taipei, Taiwan. She is a researcher, writer, and art manager with a strong interest in collective initiatives in the arts, especially those of Taiwan and Southeast Asia. Coming from backgrounds in language and literature, cultural studies, and contemporary art, she is also enthusiastic about exploring the intersection of language, texts, and meaning production in contemporary art through her writings. In particular, she probes into the spatial-temporal “delays” in communication and translation of verbal and non-verbal articulations, and the literal and aesthetic potential within such delays. After years of professional experience, Fiona is pursuing an MA in Critical and Curatorial Studies of Contemporary Art at the National Taipei University of Education.

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