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Shubigi Rao 舒比吉·拉奧 

Eating One’s Tail / Rossi & Rossi / Hong Kong / Mar 18 – May 13, 2023 /

Eating One’s Tail, the title of Shubigi Rao exhibition at Rossi & Rossi, conjures up an image of a self-ingesting creature. As a metaphor, it questions human beings’ tendency to destroy, transform and reappropriate their own creations – and, more generally, it suggests the limits of self-reference. Rao’s artistic practice, in contrast, is an invitation to discover and experiment with multiple ways to inhabit and connect to the world. More subtly, perhaps, the title humorously evokes the artist’s attempt to reflect on her own practice and her claim to subjectivity. As this is her first exhibition in Hong Kong, the whole scope of her practice is presented, with selected artworks from different series. This eclecticism appropriately reflects Rao’s multidisciplinary, encyclopedic working process, which aims to resist any kind of linear, authoritarian mode of thinking.   

Dead Duck (2013) is the first artwork that attracts the attention when entering the gallery. The large ink drawing features a hanging piece of red meat, which immediately evokes Rembrandt’s Slaughtered Ox. Here, Rao represents a duck whose inner, open spine is made from a series of clothes hangers. For her, it portrays the figure of women. Its blood spills over the paper and over the handwritten caption which says, among other things, “Everyone loves a good barbecue”. It announces, from the start, the tonality of the artist’s practice, loaded with contained violence but always witty and deliberately ambiguous. 

Dead Duck by Shubigi Rao, Ink on Tiepolo paper, 100 x 70 cm, 2013. Courtesy the artist and Rossi & Rossi.

This work stands out against the backdrop of the setting of the main gallery room, which is arranged like a cosy library with plants, a table and chairs, and shelves loaded with books. On the surface, everything looks quiet and studious – also a characteristic of books, which remain innocent until you open them. Rao is a passionate reader and writer. One of her research topics is the history of libraries, our relationship with books and access to and the preservation of knowledge. In 2013, she started a long-term project, Pulp: A short biography of the banished book, which includes the publication of a book every two years. So far, there are four volumes of Pulp, each one unique and impossible to categorise. Their contents, which include multiple forms of essay, fictional or pseudoscientific texts, drawings and autobiographical elements, could be seen as a call to treasure, share and preserve all kinds of knowledge.

Rao’s investigation of banned books and library destruction works only as an entry point to this encyclopedic compilation. The whole enterprise expresses the need to resist isolation, embrace differences and sustain kinship. Books embody a form of resistance, yet she does not display fetishism with regard to them as objects. She is too aware of their power, which can be hijacked to justify violence or despotic ideologies. To restrain herself from any temptation to regard them as sacred, she displayed alongside the books tiny elements from her series The Study of Leftovers (2013), which are in fact pieces of rubbish that she collected when she first arrived from India to settle in Singapore.

Pulp, the generic title of the project, refers to the cyclical process of producing books – from the pulping of tree to printed paper, then back to ashes and into trees again. The tree is a recurring figure in her work. Here, a series of three ink drawings feature her typical phylogenetic tree, similar to the large one that she created for the Singapore pavilion at the 59th Venice Biennale in 2022. These fanciful modes of mapping human beings’ characteristics and cultures mimic the old tradition of representing knowledge as a tree. On the multiple branches of the Tree of Life in the Anthropocene (2016), for instance, are such stereotyped captions as “Roots as history,” “Forest as clearable,” “Trees as useful”. It is not surprising that Rao’s first tree was called the Tree of Lies (2013), as she relentlessly revolts against fixed taxonomies, pseudo-objectivity and all forms of -ism that tend to paralyse knowledge, which must remain dynamic and non-dogmatic.

Tree of Life in the Anthropocene by Shubigi Rao, Ink on Fabriano Rosaspina fine art paper, 109 x 79 cm, 2016. Courtesy the artist and Rossi & Rossi.

Most of her drawings include displays of the artist’s own delicate handwriting: she draws and writes simultaneously, often so quickly that she says she sometimes cannot decipher her own words. Her creative process is well exemplified in The Mirror of Ink, Or, a Guide to the Four Pillars (2016), a series of five ink drawings on paper that evoke ancient cosmological diagrams. We can follow how she builds her own system of knowledge according to her personal, intuitive logic, linking for instance the tower of Babel, Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges and German polymath Athanasius Kircher. There is something of Aby Warburg’s Mnemosyne Atlas here.

“Every language is a library” writes Rao in Pulp Volume I, and her investigation does not limit itself to human modes of communication. The name “Shubigi” was invented by her mother and mimics a bird’s song. A Small Study of Silence (2021) relates how the members of her family, scattered across the world, record the chirping of birds to communicate via WhatsApp, unable as they are to verbalise their emotions. From quarantine confinement to the extinction of species and manicured parks, the video proposes a puzzling vision of our contradictory relationships with nature. Above all, knowledge and languages are our ways to interact with others and with our environment.

Nature, its beauty, destruction, instrumentalisation and multiple representations are pervasive in Rao’s practice. Her recent series of dual photographs, juxtaposing close-ups of plants with photographs, offer moments to breathe in this dense, multilayered exhibition. For the artist, who describes herself as a naive idealist, it also constitutes an inexhaustible source of vitality and inspiration. In her curatorial statement for the Kochi Biennale (2022-23), she wrote that “Perhaps all that is required for an impossible ideal to exist is for enough people to live, think and work as if it already does”. Despite its underlying violence and its scepticism, this show is imbued with the artist’s own passionate yearning for human culture that is strongly communicative.

Featured image: Film still from A Small Study of Silence, dir. Shubigi Rao, single channel, digital HD, colour, 4 channel sound, 2021. Duration 29:36 mins. Courtesy the artist.

舒比吉·拉奧在Rossi & Rossi呈現的個展名為「Eating One’s Tail」(吃自己的尾巴),讓人聯想到某個正在吞噬自己的生物。作為隱喻,它質疑了人類正趨向於毀滅、改造然後再次侵吞自己所創造的事物。而更廣泛來看,它令人想到自我參照的局限性。相比之下,拉奧的藝術實踐像是一份邀請,讓大家去探索和嘗試不同的方式在世界棲息並與之聯繫。或許,更含蓄地,這個題目以幽默的口吻召喚藝術家去反思她的藝術實踐和對主體性的主張。是次是她在香港的首次個展,從各個系列中精選出作品,從而全面呈現其藝術實踐。這種折衷主義恰當地反映了拉奧跨越多學科、百科全書式的創作過程,旨在抵抗任何線性、專制的思維模式。

走進畫廊,首先惹人注目的是作品《Dead Duck》(2013年)。這幅大型水墨畫描繪了一塊掛起的紅肉,讓人即刻想到倫勃朗的畫作《Slaughtered Ox》。拉奧描繪了一隻鴨子,其體內開放的脊椎是由一系列衣架製成的。拉奧認為這刻畫了女性的形象。它的血灑在紙上和手書的說明上,上面寫著:「每個人都喜歡美味的燒烤」。作品從一開始就昭告了拉奧的藝術基調——滿載著克制的暴力,卻總是幽默詼諧、蓄意地含糊。


拉奧對於禁書和毀壞圖書館的調查僅僅是這部百科全書的一個切入點。整個創作表達了我們有必要去反抗孤立、擁抱差異、維繫緊密關係。書籍體現了某種抵抗形式,但她並沒有表現出對它們的盲目崇拜。她太瞭解書籍的力量了,這些力量可以被劫持以把暴力或專制意識形態是合法化。為了不讓自己將之神聖化,她在書籍旁邊呈現了從系列作品《The Study of Leftovers》(2013 年)中提取的微小元素——她第一次從印度來到新加坡定居時所收集的垃圾。

此項目的通用名為「紙漿」,指的是生產書籍的迴圈過程——從將樹木制漿到印刷紙,然後再變成灰燼回到樹中。樹是她作品中反復出現的形象。一系列三幅水墨畫作品呈現其標誌性的進化樹,如她在 2022 年第 59 屆威尼斯雙年展上為新加坡館創作的大型進化樹。這些關於人類特徵和文化的奇特描繪模式仿照了我們的古老傳統,用樹代表知識。例如在《Tree of Life in the Anthropocene》(2016 年)的諸多樹枝上掛著諸如「根源為歷史」、「森林為可砍伐的」、「樹木為有用的」等刻板的說明文字。拉奧不懈地在反抗固定分類法、偽客觀性和所有的形式主義,它們會使知識僵化,而知識應始終是動態的、非教條的。因而毫不奇怪,她將自己的第一棵樹命名為《Tree of Lies》(2013年 )。

她的大部分畫作中都展示了自己精美的書寫:她邊畫邊寫,速度之快有時候連她自己都無法解讀自己的文字。作品《The Mirror of Ink, Or, a Guide to the Four Pillars》(2016 年)全然展現了她的創作過程。這是由五幅作品構成的系列紙上水墨畫,讓人聯想到古代的宇宙圖。透過這個作品能理解她是如何根據個人的直覺邏輯來建立自己的知識體系,比如她將巴別塔、阿根廷作家豪爾赫·路易士·波赫士和德國博學家阿塔納奇歐斯·基爾學聯繫起來。頗有些阿比·沃伯格的《摩涅莫辛涅圖集》(Mnemosyne Atlas)的意味。

「每種語言都是一座圖書館」,拉奧在 《紙漿I》中寫道,她的研究並不局限於人類的交流方式。 「舒比吉」這個名字是她母親起的,模擬了鳥兒的歌聲。《關於沉默的微型研究》(A Small Study of Silence,2021年) 講述了她分散在世界各地的家人們通過WhatsApp 記錄並分享鳥鳴聲,因他們無法用語言表達自己的情緒。從檢疫隔離到物種滅絕再到修剪一新的公園,該錄像就我們與自然的矛盾關係提出了一個令人費解的展望。歸根究底,知識和語言是我們與他人和環境互動的方式。


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