Blotting the Ledge

From the archives (April 20, 2015):

SP is proud to feature “Blotting the Ledger,” an art installation by Shubigi Rao. Born in India, now based in Singapore, Shubigi distinguishes herself from her contemporaries through a playful, yet thorough-going sense of irony. In her artist’s statements below, one on “Blotting the Ledger” and the other on her work in general, Shubigi speaks about her artistic intentions and interests. In order to probe more deeply into her work, an interview with the artist follows the statements.

Title:  Blotting the Ledger (2013)  Artist:  Shubigi Rao  Medium:  Hand-soaked books for bankers  Venue:  OH! Marina Bay, Deutsche Bank Singapore

Title: Blotting the Ledger (2013)
Artist: Shubigi Rao
Medium: Hand-soaked books for bankers
Venue: OH! Marina Bay, Deutsche Bank Singapore

Artist’s Statement: The work was displayed in one of the bank’s Boardrooms, and consisted of books with inked text and drawings, which were then soaked in the same ink. The content dealt with the bodies of knowledge surrounding banking, finance, speculation and market manipulation. Multiple ideas converged here. First, I find the process and result say a lot about destructive human tendencies and deliberate acts of violence (not just physical, but fiscal too). Two, like most people, I am outraged by the callousness and attitude of self-serving delusion that pervades the banking world. Three, I was quite tickled by posters in the bank’s pantry of overly-elaborate and rigid emphasis on place setting and meal serving. There was even a rigidly prescribed formal direction for serving muffins!

The books functioned almost as place settings in the Boardroom – suggesting the unpalatable swallowing of uncomfortable facts about cause and effect and consequence. They are as large as dinner plates, and are as many as there are places at the conference table. I like the quiet joke of setting a dish of burnt-looking books. It suggests data, information and reams of statistics (which is what they trade in and profit from), turning to ashes in their mouths.

Some of the books were soaked with pages inserted from financial gazettes, the Money pages from newspapers and other ‘secondary’ sources. These left a sort of ghostly after-image of their text on the ruined books.

Shubigi Rao: An Artist’s Life

Born in India in 1975, Shubigi Rao is now a permanent resident in Singapore, where she has been living since 2002.

A full-time visual artist, Shubigi creates complex, layered, meticulously constructed installations comprising handmade books, text, drawings, etchings and prints, pseudo-science machinery, objects and archives. Her wide-ranging choices of medium reflect her keen interest in diverse issues, from archaeology, brain theory, 13th century ‘science’, cultural histories, language, writing, literature, libraries and contemporary art theory, to natural history and environmental issues.

She tends towards installations that are immersive and often tongue-in-cheek, that employ puns (text and visual) and wordplay, whether it is creating archaeological archives of garbage; writing How To manuals for building a nation and a culture from scratch; discovering and diagnosing peculiar forms of urban malaise where digital dandruff and pixel dust accumulate like lint and cloud the contemporary brain; or building immortal jellyfish.

Etching from “Stabbing at Immortality: Building a Better Jellyfish” (2013)

Etching from “Stabbing at Immortality: Building a Better Jellyfish” (2013)

She frequently compresses her work into book and boardgame forms, thus allowing the work to escape from the confines of the exhibition. These books range from alternative art histories to biographical exercises, whereas the boardgames have dealt with the natural environment and the etymology of gendered language.

A running theme in her work has been the issue of cultural genocide, which was addressed in the powerful installation River of Ink exhibited at the end of her MFA, where as a metaphor for cultural extinction she soaked a hundred hand-drawn and hand-lettered books in the same fountain-pen ink used to create the drawings and writings that she created over one year of reading and research in a hundred branches of human knowledge. On the strength of that work and her accompanying thesis In Celebration of Futility: A Linguistic Circumambulation, she won the Award for Academic Excellence for Postgraduate studies from Singapore’s LASALLE College of the Arts, for most outstanding postgraduate student of the year (across all faculties), in 2008.

Page from  Echolocating a Book by Borges (2007 – 8)

Page from Echolocating a Book by Borges (2007 – 8)

Shubigi was one of the artists commissioned by the Second Singapore Biennale 2008, for which she created The Tuning Fork of the Mind, a multi-layered installation that dealt with a pseudo-scientific neurological theory (written by her) of brainwave activity that occurs when a viewer encounters art. Comprising multiple units (from machines, hand-drawn, hand-made books, drawings, etchings, a filmed brain dissection, sundry objects, a romance, a tragedy and a discredited scientist), the work was also invited to be shown at the annual conference of the Organisation of Human Brain Mapping, the largest global organisation of neuroscientists in June 2012, at Beijing, China. Part of the installation was also shown in Teheran, Iran, for the 2nd Edition of the Teheran Digital Art Exhibition. The neuroscientific theory that she wrote was also invited to the re-new 2013 Digital Art Festival where it was presented as a paper in the Copenhagen conference and subsequently peer-reviewed and published in its proceedings.

“The Tuning Fork of the Mind” (2008)

“The Tuning Fork of the Mind” (2008)

Her work has been exhibited widely in Singapore, as well as in Hong Kong, China, Indonesia, the Netherlands and India. Her solo exhibitions in Singapore include The Retrospectacle of S. Raoul (2013) and Useful Fictions (2013). She has published History’s Malcontents: The Life and Times of S. Raoul (2013), chronicling 10 years of artwork and writing under the pseudonym S. Raoul, 3 pseudo-art history books (2006), Bastardising Biography (2005), and a number of limited edition artist books. She was also a featured author at the 2013 Singapore Writers Festival.

Shubigi is currently visiting public and private collections, libraries and archives globally for ‘Pulp: A Short Biography of the Banished Book‘, a decade-long film, book and visual art project about the history of book destruction, censorship and other forms of repression. In order to look at the idea of the book as resistance and as civilising influence, she is visiting sites that have served as flashpoints in history, collecting fragments, ephemera, anecdotes, buried secrets, and piecing together (through the film, book and artworks) a composite chronology of our species.

Film still from “Pulp: A Short Biography of the Banished Book”

Film still from “Pulp: A Short Biography of the Banished Book”

Singapore Poetry interviews Shubigi Rao

SP. “Blotting the Ledger” is a sharp, though measured, critique of the power of financial institutions. In its pointedness, it seems different from your other works, which are more playful and philosophical. What, in your view, is the place of anger in making art?

SR. I really can’t speak for anyone else but anger is paramount, it’s my Prime Directive, it simmers beneath almost every work I’ve made. What bemused me about ‘Blotting the Ledger’ was that for the first (and so far the last) time the anger boiled over. Usually it mock-turtles into a more gentle, ironic and perverse humour, where the deadpan masks the despair.

SP. You spent 10 years making art and writing under the pseudonym of S. Raoul. In your 2013 show “The Retrospectacle of S. Raoul,” you killed him off and presented yourself as the late Raoul’s protege, confidante and biographer. How do you live with patricide?

SR. Quite easily, actually, though I find him more often than not set up as a sort of infernal editor in my head. This worries me as I’ve fobbed off a tendency to purple prose since my teens and I would be quite unhappy if his tendency to meander along tangents of an inconsequential nature were to manifest with more singularity in my prose. I suppose he outlived his purpose, which was to allow me to function as artist and writer without the annoyance of such work being read in the context of my ethnicity or gender (this is a hangover from the patronizing attitudes that set my teeth on edge in India). It’s a silly thing really, just a picture of me with a paper moustache (he’s a paper tiger really), but it freed this butterfly from its cliché, allowing me to spin my tangled skein for over a decade, with only one instance of being accused of plagiarising him (ha).

 Detail from “The Retrospectacle of S. Raoul” (2013)

 Detail from “The Retrospectacle of S. Raoul” (2013)

SP. Your works are suffused with irony, defined possibly as the discrepancy between appearance and reality. What are the sources of your ironic sense? Who are its enemies? If you are to imagine it as an object, what would it be?

SR. Ha. This is a killer. I suppose my strange parents, dysfunctional family, lack of social interaction and indiscriminate reading habit as a child could be to blame, though I suspect my ironic sense emerges from the conviction that, in keeping with most human endeavour, futility underpins all that I do. I’m drawn to the extraneous, the outmoded, and the method that describes in painstaking detail a complete irrelevancy. I suppose the enemies of that sense would be self-righteousness of any stripe, the sort that declaims and flagellates and forces us to kneel and watch. I have a list, by the way, and it is unsurprisingly long. This roster of names and ills is this object, one list to hold them all, all penned up in a crazy coop, marked down in unsentimental type.

I suspect, however, that this answer is a bit of a cop-out. The enemies as I really see them are the symbols of conformity, symbols so commonplace that we forget that they speak of hewing to a single ideology, of the tyranny of truth with a capital T, of monolithic irrational purpose that can only exist through the denial of all that falls outside that demagoguery.

SP. You have made the written word an integral part of your art. You are in fact working on a decade-long project about the history of book destruction. What is the allure of words to you as a visual artist? Does it suggest a kind of insufficiency in the wordless image?

SR. It may be disingenuous to say that I can’t see a clear separation between the two, but so far I haven’t been able to prove otherwise, at least to myself. I really did try, you know – a big chunk of my MFA thesis was an attempt to rationalise my way out of word-games and poor puns. Even when I’m (mindlessly) drawing, words tumble pell-mell, critical and trivial, often as limericks and poor pomes in my head, inevitably spilling out and infecting the drawing. I find drawing and language so similar in terms of the primacy and urgency of their impulse. It’s not an insufficiency of the wordless image as much as it reflects an inability to extricate myself from the constant chatter of the two.

The project (‘Pulp: A Short Biography of the Banished Book’) is overtly about the very serious (and unfortunately always topical) issue of cultural genocide, censorship, banning, burning et al, but embedded within its premise is the horror I have of any form of silencing, and my inability to comprehend the human fear of knowledge. So far there’s a film, a series of monographs, books and artwork made over the course of 10 years, with a showing every couple of years. Much like the S. Raoul endeavour you can see my projects are as long-winded as me.

Shubigi Rao

Shubigi Rao

All photos are used by permission of artist.