Shubigi Rao is Not Your Typical Artist: “I Don’t Make ‘Art’ Art”
What Makes Art, Art is a series that delves into some of art’s biggest questions and picks the minds of various individuals from the art industry to uncover diverse perspectives that stimulate, inspire, confront and even clash.
How does one even begin to describe Shubigi Rao?
A 44-year-old mother of one. An India-born, Singaporean multidisciplinary artist. A recipient of the Juror’s Choice Award at the APB Signature Art Prize. A Singapore Literature Prize shortlisted author. A connoisseur of bad action movies. An RPG gaming junkie. A former boarding school weirdo and child of “benign neglect”. A voracious reader. A closet of faux personas, including a neuroscientist and a young Korean boy who tests games. A self-proclaimed non-workaholic who writes 10,000 words a night while ignoring her biological needs. A massive procrastinator like the rest of us?
Beneath her deceptively unassuming exterior, the bespectacled stereotype of an English professor is possibly one of the most intriguing individuals you’ll ever encounter. You wouldn’t think she listens to indie rock tunes about Satan with her son doodling his afternoon away at her co-op art studio. No matter how hard you try, it’s impossible to pigeonhole her. Even the most varied and detailed of descriptions seem inadequate. Unsurprisingly, she’s far from your average artist, and doesn’t identify as a traditional one either.
“I think something is lost when you make things into artworks. Some things are better in their raw state. In that sense, I don’t make ‘art’ art,” she confesses. “I call myself an artist because it’s a catch-all phrase for the multiple things I like to do.”
Equally as elusive of classification, these “things” include crafting mock scientific papers and neuroscientific machines as S. Raoul, a non-existent male persona who served as her mentor—a 10-year prank project that proved gender prejudice in the art world. “I was accused of plagiarising my mentor thrice because no one could believe I did it,” Shubigi expressed at the press conference of Unhomed Belongings, an exhibition at the National Museum that also featured Charlie’s Angels’ Lucy Liu.
She’s since shed her nom de plume, in exchange for a markedly different decade-long project, “Pulp: A Short Biography of the Banished Book”, which began in 2014 and has no space for humour. Comprising a series of films, books and art pieces, it deep dives into the subject of book destruction, delving into complex ideas such as “the book as resistance”.
We catch up with Shubigi, the woman who defies expectations, at the Goodman Arts Centre to get a peek into her hyperactive, knowledge-thirsty, wildly versatile brain.
High Net Worth: You do a lot of different things. You’re an artist, writer, filmmaker, and previously a lecturer at the LASALLE College of the Arts. If someone were to ask what you did for a living, what would you say?
Shubigi Rao: I think the word, “artist”, is brilliant because it’s a sort of catch-all term for you doing whatever you want to do in media. If I’m possessed with a certain idea, I’ll realise, ‘Okay, this would be best delivered through this medium.’ If it’s not a medium I’ve tried, I’d learn how to use that medium. Here’s a simple example. For my current 10-year project, I realised I would need to do a lot more photography and film. I had no training in film, so I’ve just been teaching myself. I found a film student, and said, “Educate me.” Film students are the best. There’s no ego. They’re eager to share knowledge, and they don’t laugh at you when you ask stupid questions, which is very important because that’s a great way to stop the learning process. Also, YouTube is a brilliant resource.
I found that filmmaking was critical because part of the project involves bearing witness or removing myself as the artist or the interpreter. I make sure that the stuff people tell me on film is directly transmitted to the audience with minimal editing. I want people who haven’t been heard to be heard, so I need to make space for them. Film allows that to happen because it’s the closest a viewer will get to meeting and listening to someone that they wouldn’t normally encounter.
If I call myself a filmmaker, I’m restricted. If I call myself a writer, I’m restricted. But the moment I call myself an artist, I can do all these things and more. I’ve even made board games, and written fake science papers and art history books, which are all also artworks. Anything can operate as an artwork if you’re very clear and honest about your intention—in other words, if you have fidelity to your idea. The idea, for me, is supreme. It’s important that I maintain ethical and aesthetic integrity in delivering that idea, which means I have to constantly teach myself new media, and learn new disciplines.
“To me, drawing is immeasurably powerful. It holds not only your current expression, but also all of human history, human endeavour, and knowledge. Everything, to me, is distilled in mark-making and line.”
How do you decide if a particular artwork calls for a certain medium? Or do you find that everything can actually be done through painting or film?
That’s a brilliant question. I feel that way about drawing, and to a certain extent, writing. That’s why a lot of my drawings employ writing as well. Drawing actually predates language. Neolithic cave paintings are abstract and geometric, so we were abstracting our perceived reality tens of thousands of years before we’ve even developed language. To me, drawing is immeasurably powerful. It holds not only your current expression, but also all of human history, human endeavour, and knowledge. Everything, to me, is distilled in mark-making and line.
Now just because language came later doesn’t necessarily mean it’s not good enough. Language holds its own as well. I don’t see them as oppositional. To me, they come together. If I’m drawing, the text and the drawing automatically suggest themselves. I don’t know how to work separately. For that reason, this is the one medium that could encapsulate everything. Having said that, I’ve fallen in love with filmmaking. I love using the camera, and the fact that this is the age of the solo female DSLR filmmaker. With very reasonable, lightweight equipment, it’s possible for you to travel and film. You don’t even need a crew.
How long does it take for you to get comfortable with a new medium or discipline, enough to actually make stuff?
I rarely tell the truth about this question because people don’t tend to believe me. I taught myself the basics of early neuroscience, the main players in neuroscience, the visual processing in the brain and so on in a month. My brain has this incredible ability to learn new things very quickly, and it’s not difficult for me at all. The problem is retaining it. If I don’t use it, within a couple of months, it’s gone. I’ll show you what I mean. When I was teaching myself neuroscience, I kept this little journal to help me develop the artwork I was making. The artwork was called, The Tuning Fork of the Mind, which was for the Singapore Biennale.
These are all fake drawings. It’s all wordplay, poetry, and bad puns, but it’s also got neuroscientific truth in it. The hoax that “contemporary artworks deliberately and maliciously derange the brain” was a hypothesis I was working on. There’s some silly stuff like, “The bigger the brain, the less delicious, so it’s fun eating fish, but not so much eating a rat or a human.” I also developed a series of questions that show the paradox of asking a question. This is what I meant by saying the drawing and writing happen together. It’s really crazy because the global conference of neuroscientists has now invited me to present twice. It’s funny because they assumed I would still be working in neuroscience, but I haven’t done neuroscience work since 2008.
Do they treat your work as if they’re real?
Initially, the people who don’t know, do. Then, they start laughing. The whole point is that at some point, you’re in on the joke. Otherwise, it’ll just be mean to the viewer. I actually knew more about the history of neuroscience than most neuroscientists because they only study their specialised branch.
That sounds incredibly fun.
Oh, it’s good fun. It was one month of craziness. I even built machines. There was a fake video of a brain dissection. But when this work was shown at the Singapore Biennale, I got zero reviews of it. It just sank without a trace. Three years later, I was invited to present the same work at the global conference of neuroscientists. That’s when I realised, I don’t make art for the art world. I just never have. It’s how I encounter, perceive and interpret reality, in my very asocial way. It can make for fun work, but I don’t need that validation from the art world.
When you were presenting your work as the protégé of S. Raoul (your male persona), did it feel like performance art?
People told me that when I presented a paper written by S. Raoul, it’s like a performance lecture, but honestly, that never crossed my mind. I’ve always associated performance art with the history of performance art. It’s a brilliant form of activism, a powerful way to push back against the commodification of art. It changed the relationship between viewers and art. It made the artist not a genius persona hiding behind the world, but someone who is front and centre, human, bare and raw. I don’t think I can do that. Maybe in my younger days, but I’m very uncomfortable putting myself at the forefront.
You also said the art itself can be considered a persona.
Oh, absolutely. It masquerades. I call them iterations. For instance, with Unhomed Belongings, the film I showed there was originally separate little clips, and the viewer could browse the clips and choose what they want to watch. Some of the clips were only 20 seconds long. The longest was four minutes. There was no music, no editing, no colour grading, nothing. It was just four monitors with buttons. I gave the viewer the choice of stitching the stories together. But in the National Museum show, the film that’s projected was edited only because the work travelled to Italy and the curator was adamant that the clips should be shown as an artist film. A lot of people prefer that. They love a narrative, music, a story. But I think something is lost when you make things into artworks. Some things are better in their raw state. In that sense, I don’t make “art” art. For me, the eventual product is a secondary thought.
The primary would be the idea?
Yeah, and the excitement and agony of realising that idea, which is why I sometimes spend 10 years devoted to a central idea such as S. Raoul. But under S. Raoul, I did so many things—my neuroscience work, my board games. The central idea remains the same, the idea that a woman being polymathic is seen as impossible. It’s men who do these things. My anger towards that has always been disregarded, and my anger always comes out as humour. Humour helps me produce, so that’s my primary (at least it was for the first 10 years). In my current 10-year project, it is like I’m a different person. There’s no humour, but that’s because the project demands a very high ethical commitment.
When it comes to making art, how much of it is intellectual and how much of it is instinctual for you?
I think a lot about why I’m doing things. When I finally start making stuff, I don’t think that much honestly. Most artists would probably tell you the same thing. Part of that is the art school process. You first write a proposal, you think about it, you find your artist references… You’re so trained in that way of working that even if you don’t do proposals, you’re still always thinking about stuff. By the time you get down to doing it, it’s almost like two separate processes, which is I think a pity. I’m not totally happy with my working process right now. I find that I don’t get as much time as I’d like to make stuff because I spend a lot of my time doing logistical work, coordinating stuff, doing funding proposals.
I’m not a workaholic, but from a third party’s point of view, it will definitely seem that way because I’m constantly working. I can write 10,000 words in a night. It’s an extremely unhealthy way to live and exist because you end up finding your self-worth getting tied to whether you’re working.
Is it difficult for you to do nothing?
I don’t know what that’s like. I used to do that when I was younger. I was great at spacing out, and I think that’s what actually made me—benign neglect. Because I was the eldest and kind of a good child, and I was an obsessive reader, my parents would just leave me alone. I loved creating stuff and collecting trash even then. This kind of behaviour meant that while I was reading and making things, my mind was also daydreaming and spacing out. I remember making books about imagined planets. It was also an escape from a really brutal boarding school experience. But that’s really important—to get bored and devise ways to entertain yourself using your imagination, not through external stimuli like screens and stuff. I miss that. I’m not able to do that anymore.
What’s your creative process like now?
I get seized by an idea, and I draw and write. I fill notebooks with little ink drawings and text. Just random things. I won’t call them doodles because they’re more sophisticated than that. Each notebook is an entire thing on its own. They’re deceptively simple drawings, but they contain massive amounts of historical references. There’ll be bad puns like lachrymorose—lachrymose means tears. “Always leaning left of centre, but with a right-wing chip on my shoulder.” That’s the legacy of conservative thinking that infiltrates your mind, your inner political and ideological struggles.
There’s also this well-known Italian artist who made little books of emblems, which all had morals and they were so weird. There was one where a fox enters a theatre group’s green room. There are no humans around, but he finds a mask and wonders if it’s a human. It’s talking about the nature of self-perception. I changed it to a decapitated head. Every one thing reminds me of 200 others. As you can probably gather from the way I speak, what drawing does is it makes me precise.
Do these things just come into your head?
Yeah, they just do. I don’t know how.
So you don’t sit down and brainstorm?
No, it doesn’t work that way.
To be able to reference such varied concepts and stories, you must be consuming a lot of information continually.
I did as a child. I grew up with this brilliant library my parents had. They spent all their money on the library, which was why I didn’t get to go to university.
“Reading really widely enabled me to respect everything, and to not privilege one form of knowledge, ideology or system over any other. That’s why I never belonged to a particular “ism”.”
Were you reading a lot of complex stuff?
Yeah, because no one cared what I was reading. If I could reach it, I could read it. As a kid, you don’t understand everything, but it doesn’t matter. No one told me, “This book is not for you.” It allowed me to embrace the things I don’t understand, so I’m not afraid of the unknown. I fear of becoming ignorant, which is different. It’s you wanting to remain unaware of things and passing judgment on things you don’t understand and that are none of your business. I can’t stand that. Reading really widely enabled me to respect everything, and to not privilege one form of knowledge, ideology or system over any other. That’s why I never belonged to a particular “ism”. I can’t say I’m leftist or a capitalist. It’s the same reason why I don’t have a fixed religion.
What do you think makes art, art?
What makes art, art is a huge question, but I don’t think art comes from itself. It’s not an isolated occurrence. Art occurs because artists are human beings. They’re not separate from society. Do you know that dismissive term, “hobby artist”? That’s also art. It’s all valid. There’s a lot of art I personally wouldn’t make and don’t enjoy, but I know we need to have them because we need diversity of expression, ideas and influence.
What sort of things do you not like?
Exploitative work. There was a student, for instance, who thought it was cool to take the experience of the minority population here and show what a great saviour he was. He took their story, turned it into his artist project, and got credit for it. Those people got into trouble, but he didn’t care. It was all about him looking good. That kind of work is definitely problematic, and you see it everywhere.
Here’s a great example: Last year or the year before that, one of the Magnum photographers took photographs of underage sex trafficked kids. The photographs were never of the men, but of the child at the moment of being abused. It was an exploitative gaze that used the child’s terror, pain and misery, and turned it into a project that the photographer won awards for. But he never implicated the people who were responsible. There was not a single photograph of the people who were using these services, and he couldn’t even see what he’d done wrong. I thought it was so wrong.
Would you consider that bad art?
Unthinking, selfish and narcissistic, definitely. Bad is a term that’s too generic and subjective. It’s hard to quantify.
Would you say being an artist is never about glorifying oneself?
I think it’s okay. I’m glad there’s fame. I do have a problem with the fact that it’s all the same faces. For instance, most collectors are white, therefore, most people in galleries are white. What about all the people who have been banished and are missing through history? Where are the women of modernism? Where are the post-impressionist women? There were tons, but they’re just not written about. The art world is its own particular animal. I can’t say, ‘This or that is a solution.’ But I do think that a healthy animal is one that isn’t in-bred, or constantly consuming the same thing again and again because that’s a very unhealthy diet. A healthy ecosystem is one that allows for massive amounts of diversity, and doesn’t measure success by a few outstanding names.
[Related: Tom Tandio: A Journey of Self-Discovery Through Art]
[Related: Ryan Su: Making Art Accessible]