In a world that is increasingly turning digital in every sphere of life, Shubigi Rao recalls her times as a teenager spending hours reading rare and old books at her parents’ quiet library. What’s more, the artist-writer’s work at the Kochi-Muziris Biennale delves into a part-fantasy past in which ideas so gathered were sneaked away.
“I lived in different books,” notes the Singapore-based artist about her days of growing up in West Bengal’s hilly Darjeeling before moving to the national capital of Delhi. “It’s where I began believing in a shared humanity.”
This year, Shubigi spent several weeks in this Biennale city, researching and developing an installation that immerses viewers in the texts, images, and verbal accounts of a world where books are the most valuable commodity. “For this project, I created a mythical world from existing letters and records from the libraries and archives, besides my interactions in Kochi,” she notes, standing by her work that focuses on the history of science, literature and libraries themselves.
The narrative revolves around a text discovered by a colonial officer, S Raoul, that maps the trade route of book smugglers. While local librarians and writers play the roles of the smugglers and their descendants, and their journey includes real sites in the region.
“By creating this semi-fictional history of smuggled texts and ideas, I discuss topics like displacement and cross-cultural experience. One that is as much about the movement of ideas and language as it is about the political and economic legacies of power structures,” says the 43-year-old artist, who was born in Bombay.
Shubigi’s exhibit area at the sea-facing Aspinwall House in Fort Kochi showcase three works: an installation, a set of photographs and a video. Thus, the room too is divided into three: an unreadable reading room, indecipherable and fading maps and lastly the ‘Pelagic Tracts’ (video installation).
As a visual artist who also dabbles in writing, Shubigi’s interest in art includes archaeology, language, libraries, acts of cultural genocide, contemporary art theory, neuroscience and natural history. Her work involves layered installations comprising ideological board games, drawings, pseudo-science machinery, metaphysical puzzles and archives.
Artist Anita Dube, who is the curator of the 108-day Biennale which opened on December 12, notes that Shubigi has passionately invested in the history of knowledge and libraries. “She collects the pieces of cultural and knowledge production that present-day thinking has deemed outdated and irrelevant. For instance, scientific studies, technological objects, literary works and marginalised histories.”
Besides books, the systematic destruction of libraries and censorship are important aspects of Shubigi’s artistic practice. “The moment you attack culture, you take away a people’s purpose and their link to the land; you strip them of what it is to be human,” Shubigi notes. “If our history is anything to go by, all books are predestined ashes.”
While these installations often take the form of recognisable institutions (laboratories, museum exhibits, classrooms), Shubigi injects them with a sense of the absurd. “I try to challenge the prominent values of contemporary society by placing the discarded, hidden or censored remnants of the past within the mechanisms that determine what is worthy of preservation,” she says.
Since 2014, Shubigi has been visiting libraries and archives, researching about the history of book destruction. That led her to bring out a book: ‘Pulp: A Short Biography of the Banished Book’. The first portion of the project, ‘Written in the Margins’ won the Juror’s Choice Award at the APB Signature Prize 2018. The first book from the project has been shortlisted for the Singapore Literature Prize 2018.