The Pavilion of Singapore officially opens Shubigi Rao's Pulp III: A Short Biography of the Banished Book
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The Pavilion of Singapore officially opens Shubigi Rao's Pulp III: A Short Biography of the Banished Book
Paolo Olbi, the printer for the Armenian diaspora community in Venice, in the traditional print workshop of Antica Stamperia Armena, at Ca’ Zenobi, Venice, Italy, photographed with the author as interjector. Image courtesy the artist, December 2021.

VENICE.- This year marks Singapore’s milestone 10th participation at the International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia.

Approaching the Pavilion entrance, one steps between what appears to be sheets of paper holding us within its folds, much like the enveloping that occurs in the act of reading. Entering the hanging paper maze, its layers unfold to reveal not only the architecture of a book, but also Shubigi Rao’s journey of discovery into the world of stories centred around books, for hundreds of chronicles are at the core of this work.

The next encounter is a multivocal filmic experience that explores, by way of personal confidences and poetic reflections, documentary and mytho-poetic languages, the tales of those at the frontlines of saving books and libraries. These people speak of smuggling volumes out of danger, preserving endangered languages and vanishing cultures, while sharing the sorrow of losing access to personal and collective pasts and histories.

Partially filmed in Venice, a city that embodies a vital history of print and open access, the film Talking Leaves depicts, among other stories, how books from a now-defunct archive of women partisans and genocide survivors, are rescued.

Discussions about the historical connections of access to knowledge and political power with Italian professor of book history Mario Infelise are interwoven with conversations with Singaporean researcher Faris Joraimi about the cultural politics and intellectual history of the Malay world. Venetian librarian Ilenia Maschietto shares stories of banned books and her favourite books of resistance, while Marco Borghi explains how alternative archives can act as safeguards of democracy.

The poet Bianca Tarozzi invites us into her library sharing the books that survived the devastating 2019 floods in Venice. Singaporean writer Melissa de Silva reads aloud from a book of idioms in Kristang, an endangered language of Malacca's and Singapore's Eurasian communities. Retired librarian Saralee Turner recites passages from ‘Not Out of Hate’ by Myanmar writer Ma Ma Lay, while another describes the threats to contemporary libraries and free knowledge. Through these stories, we see the book as the embodiment of collective thought, labour, and readership, and we recognise the book as an intimate holder of humanity and community.

Copies of Rao’s new book, Pulp III: An Intimate Inventory of the Banished Book (Pulp Vol. III), are arranged in a way that speaks of the monumentality of its format as a container of knowledge. Pulp Vol. III chronicles Rao’s long-term artistic research process and conceptual reframing of the book and the library, whilst adding new research on Singapore and Venice as historic centres of print.

Over the course of the Biennale Arte 2022, this installation of books will change in form as they are dispersed into the world. For Rao, each book is a messenger, a time- traveller, the embodiment of our need to communicate, and a rallying call to action.

In reference to the work, Shubigi Rao said: “What are our testimonies, and what is it we affirm? Are our certainties just circles of rationalising, restless half-truths, vivid imaginings and cynical manipulations? Or can we ask where the smallest form can speak to larger testaments? Every mark we read or see was made to bear witness to brief life and briefer designs. Every text then is a testimony, not necessarily of truth, but an illuminating of time, idea, of the facts and falsities of place and moment. In this way, the stories in the Pulp project point to different forms of courage, in action, in speech, in documenting and in sharing. These stories also make visible the nuanced forms of resistance in print, and of lives lived surrounded by books, of breathing air heavy with the weight of unread but priceless knowledge, of risking everything to save texts that are not theirs, and may never be read, but are also more than mere symbolic representations of their civilizations, or some idealistic notion of humanness.”

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