Ute Meta Bauer (left) and Shubigi Rao (Photo: National Arts Council)

From 23 April to 27 November this year, Singapore will showcase a selection of artwork at the Singapore Pavilion at the 59th International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia. The biennale returns after a year-long hiatus due to the pandemic, coinciding with Singapore’s 10th year of participation. 

For the first time, the Commissioning Panel convened by National Arts Council has chosen an all-women artistic team for the event – multidisciplinary artist Shubigi Rao and curator Ute Meta Bauer. In the lead up to the exhibition and following the announcement of Rao’s Pulp III: A Short Biography of the Banished Book, a project exploring the history of book destruction and its impact, both women tell us what to expect. 

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Could you tell us the roles each of you will take in the lead up to the event? 

Shubigi: I’ve worked steadily over the last year or so on the work for the Pavilion. The presentation is ultimately a team effort, but as the artist, I direct the course of the project primarily in terms of the book and the film, as I have since the inception of the Pulp project. At times an extension of my existing research, the work also integrates new filming with new participants from Italy and Singapore. The ethos of the project has been embraced by my artistic team – my curator and exhibition designer especially, and by my editors for both book and film – and this collaborative process has been immensely rewarding.

Ute: An exhibition is a space of dialogue, it’s a conversation between the artist, the curator and the audience. I am first of all, kind of a sounding board for the artist and her work. I give feedback, make suggestions, and bring in my experience with large scale exhibitions and their audiences.

This year marks the 10th edition of the Singapore Pavilion at the International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia. How will the team be commemorating the occasion? 

Shubigi: The Biennale Arte is one of the oldest and most prestigious contemporary art platforms and for many contemporary artists, presenting work at the Biennale represents a pinnacle in our artistic aspirations. This is also the first all-women team to be sent up to Venice representing Singapore, which is an exciting milestone in and of itself, and one which provides hope for more diverse representation of SG artists both at home and internationally

Ute: It’s an honour and pressure at the same time to represent a country, and it marks a highlight in the career of every artist. Most important for me is to bring to the fore the commitment and long-term engagement that informs the complex and diverse work of Shubigi Rao. Amidst an orchestra of the more than eighty National Pavilions featured in Venice, any presentation has to be very concise and focused if you want to convey a memorable narrative.

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How has the pandemic affected the way things are typically done?

Shubigi: The ability to travel has largely affected the project in visiting the people and communities I had initially wanted to include in the film and book. The gradual reopening of borders has allowed me to undertake the core travel necessary to interview and meet new people in Venice. Aside from that, a large portion of the film draws on 5 years’ worth of footage, artwork and research.

Ute: Even before the pandemic we decided to produce the pavilion in Venice to reduce our carbon footprint. However, with Covid-19 chances were high that we could not travel to install.  Coincidentally, the characteristics of the artist-favoured formats – books, photography, film – is mobility. Although the paper maze designed by architect Laura Miotto, responds directly to the site – the Sale D’ Armi at the Arsenale – it can be adapted to other spaces.

How has the pandemic affected your selection of artwork to exhibit at the Pavilion this year?

Shubigi: Both Ute and I are greatly concerned with the environmental impact of the work we were proposing, and we both agreed right from the outset to think about this as part of the work and its production, rather than as an afterthought. In order to avoid shipping works from Singapore, we decided to produce the work on-site in Venice as much as possible, from the entire build for the Pavilion to the printing and binding of the books. We worked with a brilliant local cooperative printer, Grafiche Veneziane, to produce the book. By attempting to reduce our carbon footprint, this initial proposal also turned out to be fortuitous, once the effects of the pandemic unfolded. Our final work for the Pavilion is flexible and mobile in both production and installation.

Ute: Actually, it did not impact us in terms of what we intended to present. But the pandemic has a deep impact on public programming and the direct conversations we had planned with communities etc. We were very fortunate that at the end we could travel twice to Venice due to the postponement of the biennale and Shubigi could proceed with her film and have conversations physically – which is so crucial for her work – with writers, librarians, archivists not just in Italy, but also in Singapore.

Are there any themes or topics that are of particular interest to either of you? Why?

Shubigi: Ultimately, the project looks at several overarching themes including the loss and preservation of languages, access to knowledge, resistance to monetisation of knowledge, and shadow languages. The context of where the Singapore Pavilion is situated in Venice is further relevant to the core of the project which explores the cosmopolitanism of regional print communities which have blossomed and waned in historic centres of print across geographies and borders including Singapore, Southeast Asia and Venice. Ultimately the core of the Pulp project is to remember the ideals of shared humanity, collaborative and alternative strategies of thinking and working. These are vital as we battle inequality, environmental and other crises, and as we try to envision more equitable societies and non-exploitative ways of living on this planet.

Ute: The pandemic has made us more aware of how much we value human-to-human interactions. Additionally, it has made us value travel more, as well as cutting back on those that are unnecessary. To meet people living and working in Venice has been critical for this project; we were looking for these deeper conversations in terms of our shared agency for cultures and their vulnerability.

(Related: Art in the time of Covid-19)

In your opinion, what are some of the highlights of the Singapore Pavilion this year?

Shubigi: The upcoming edition will be the first time Singapore is represented by a solo woman artist, and an all-female artistic team, which is an important milestone, and hopefully a harbinger of more diversity in future iterations. Additionally, we are looking forward to the return show in 2023, for local audiences to experience an expanded version of the project.

Ute: The very fact that it is happening is amazing; that we can be there and meet other artists and curators is very special. I am certain the audience will treasure the one-to-one encounters with works of art even more.

What else will you be looking forward to seeing/experiencing at the La Biennale di Venezia?

Shubigi: The record number of female artists and curators representing national pavilions, as well as the main exhibition by Cecilia Alemani. The record inclusion and representation of Indigenous artists and communities is heartening to see, and a promising start to a future which I hope will include overlooked communities and individuals.