A still from Shubigi Rao’s films examining the destruction of books and libraries. Credit: Shubigi Rao

Singapore is small but its publishing scene punches above its weight. This often-overlooked aspect of the country has been a source of inspiration for visual artist and writer Shubigi Rao, who is set to transform the Singapore Pavilion at Venice Biennale 2022 into a celebration of Singapore’s printing history.

Rao, 46, has been studying the global history of books and libraries for several years now. Her two published books on the subject, Pulp: A Short Biography Of The Banished Book (2016) and Pulp II: A Visual Biography of The Banished Book (2018), have both garnered critical raves and awards.

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The Business Times named the former as one of the top titles of 2016, while the latter won the Singapore Literature Prize top award in the Creative Non-Fiction category in 2020.

Rao will be working with esteemed curator Ute Meta Bauer to turn her research into a grand multimedia installation at the next Venice Biennale – often referred to as the Olympics of art. They make up the first all-women team to represent Singapore at the biennale, which will run from April to November 2022.

Rao says: “The showcase will draw together all the ideas that I’ve been exploring since 2014, such as books and libraries, contemporary issues of knowledge spread, marginalised histories and banned writings.


Visual artist and writer Shubigi Rao (right) will work with curator Ute Meta Bauer to turn her research into a grand multimedia installation at the next Venice Biennale.

“It will celebrate the shared humanity of people who fight for the right to free access to knowledge, people who maintain shadow libraries, people who during wartime saved books and libraries, people who understand the importance of outdated knowledge, and anyone else who realise how books have an incredible value of an intangible nature.

“Even though we have so much access to information today because of the Internet, we actually don’t have as much as we think we do, because a large percentage of the world’s critical knowledge is behind a paywall.

“Hence, my work is also an examination of the neoliberal takeover of knowledge, because there is tremendous money to be made out of the scientific and cultural endeavours in higher study and academia.”

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These ideas will be transposed into various art forms such as films, drawings and photographs. Rao is still in the process of imagining the space with Bauer and their various designers.

But she promises the showcase will be “lush, poetic and almost mythical” – not unlike her work at the 2018 Kochi-Muziris Biennale, which drew raves from art lovers. Subsequently, Rao was asked to be the artistic director of the 2020 edition of the biennale though this had to be postponed because of the coronavirus situation in India.

Nonetheless, Rao and the biennale’s founder-director Bose Krishnamachari were jointly placed at the 85th spot of ArtReview’s 2020 power list of the most influential people in art – a list that includes heavyweights such as
American gallerist Larry Gagosian, Italian fashion designer Miuccia Prada and Singapore museum director Eugene Tan.

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Bauer, an art professor at Nanyang Technological University and founding director of NTU Centre of Contemporary Art, had also made the power list in previous years.

Rao says: “Bauer and I were actually shortlisted separately for the Singapore project. But when she was asked to think of an artist she’d like to work with, and I was asked to think of a curator I’d like to work with, we both independently thought of each other – so we ended up doing the proposal together, which ultimately got picked by the panel.”

Rao was born in Mumbai but moved to Singapore nearly two decades ago and became a Singapore citizen. Bauer is German and has contributed significantly to the art scene here since her arrival in 2013.

The 59th Venice Biennale will run from April 23 to November 27, 2022

This article first appeared in The Business Times