viennacontemporary 2016 | Disempowering the Totalitarian : Introduction to artist Shubigi Rao

written by Bharti Lalwani 

Through a practice that spans fifteen years, Singapore-based artist and lecturer Shubigi Rao (b. 1975, Bombay) excavates cultural memory by diligently sifting through the detritus of human history. Her study of 13th century ‘science’, brain theory, meta-physical puzzles, language, literature and art theory among other topics, give way to meticulously conceptualised installations which include handmade books, intricate etchings, drawings, prints, text, archives, film, sound, instruments and equipment. Here, various aspects of knowledge, obscure theories, factual and fictional narratives are netted like rogue butterflies and affixed to sprawling assemblages. Her artistic productions however, play to the reception of both the uncritical and the sceptic viewer.

I encountered Rao’s work for the first time in 2008 at the Singapore Biennale. Freshly arrived from Nigeria where power and corruption manifest through obvious and predictable channels, I viewed Singapore, its orderly efficient systems, cleanliness and apparent overwhelming support for the arts with unquestioning awe and admiration. However, it was Rao’s specially commissioned experiential installation ‘The Tuning Fork of the Mind’ that served as an antidote, as an introduction to the State’s paranoia and suspicion of its free thinking cultural producers. In a room filled with all kinds of scientific instruments and working implements, Tuning Fork convinced the public that art-viewing could result in brain-damage. What, on the surface seemed a sincere endeavour to present a wholesome archive of scientific findings, obscure research, newspaper articles with frightful headlines, even a vintage-looking film documenting the dissection of a human brain, was an elaborate artistic hoax that (successfully) tapped into the psychosis of autocratic State that is already wary of the subversive nature of artists and individual expression. A pseudo brain-wave reading machine was also included in this installation that visitors could voluntarily try out to measure the extent of Biennale-induced damage As the viewer donned electrodes that measured their damaged brainwaves, needles would spin frantically, oscillators would spike, bulbs would flash, and their “brainwaves” would be converted and played back to them as sound.

Reactions from one high-level minister whose security mistook this particular machine as a bomb, to members of the local public who were clearly alarmed that such a dangerous installation was set up without warning signs, were worth noting. The nuances of ‘Tuning Fork…’ translate on two levels. One, it gives the regime what it wants all along – a working theory and evidence required to prove that art is dangerous, that therefore artists or any sign of individual or collective deviancy that challenges the State’s hegemony, is dangerous to a harmonious, seemingly delicate multi-ethnic, multi-faith society. One more weapon in their arsenal of propaganda. On another level, ‘Tuning Fork…’ lifts the veil on such rationale and exposes it as hollow. For the critical viewer, the Totalitarian is revealed as literal-minded, fragile and without the ability to grasp humour and irony.

Rao had co-authored the theory of ‘The Tuning Fork of the Mind’ that year with S. Raoul (another elaborate hoax – as the foreign-sounding male alter-ego, S. Raoul was employed for a decade to be her patron and scapegoat till his accidental death in 2010). This paper was later peer-reviewed and published in conjunction with re:new Digital Arts Festival in Copenhagen in 2013. Just the year before, the plausibility of her installation and theory was validated when Rao was invited to exhibit ‘Tuning Fork…‘ at the largest global organisation of neuroscientists in Beijing. Part of the installation was also shown at the Teheran Digital Art Exhibition in Iran. Clearly the resonance of this artwork was such that it had begun to take a life of its own.

Throughout her practice, Rao has laid bare historical narratives and counter-narratives that have been archived, revised, fictionalised or obliterated. Often these take the form of books. Through scrupulous methodology, however, she makes the case against cultural genocide. Another work from 2008, ‘The River of Ink’ manifests the desolation, vandalism and violence meted out towards books and archives. A hundred handwritten and hand-drawn books that Rao herself penned on universal issues such as the dangers of nationalism, war, conformity, freedom of expression and mindless consumerism, were drowned in the same fountain-pen ink with which they were created. The result: a visceral illustration of devastation. Rao staged the mangled books, their slippages of letters and meaning, in various states of decay on a stack of crates, flood-lit as though they were findings from an archaeological dig-site or alternately, a fresh crime scene heavy with the smell of ink-blood.

Though Rao acknowledges that her artistic efforts could barely be enough to change much that is wrong with the world, she strenuously asserts her imperative to create through her latest all-consuming, all-encompassing, multi-pronged, ten-year project titled ‘Pulp: A Short Biography of the Banished Book’. Rao returns to excavate the meaning and consequences of cultural genocide and what this means for its perpetrators, its living and inanimate victims and the memory and resistance of its survivors. Already two years into her ambitious project, Rao has published the first of five volumes on the subject which addresses the writing and erasure of histories, languages, music, divergent narratives, and so on. As her first volume reveals, Pulp is a systematic but bone-chilling investigation into the history of censorship – the first records, documents and books to be banned, the first historic library to be sacked and set on fire, the first recorded culture to be exterminated, the first university to be bombed. Her book, richly illustrated and deeply personal, also examines the way histories get written as well as the complicity of the museum archivist in presenting these narratives.

A project that complicates and resists description, Pulp ties in all of Rao’s humanist concerns, glimpsed in her earlier works, which are now shaping into a multi-headed hydra that delves into libraries across the globe. Pulp will eventually be seen as a collation of five books, films and interviews particularly with librarians and keepers of archives who have fled war, repression and proscription, as well as etchings, prints and installation elements.

Bharti Lalwani is a Pune-based art critic. with a special focus on South East Asian art. Lalwani will appear with artist Shubigi Rao as part of the panel, “Public Speech: Grounds for Contestation,” at 3pm on Friday, September 23, 2016, as part of the ‘Keys to the Contemporary Art’ Talks Program at viennacontemporary. For more information, check the website.

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