Exhibition Review of Shubigi Rao: Exquisite Corpse

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Shubigi Rao: Exquisite corpse reforms and remoulds excess to open the way for access—ours, words, images—an opening through which new ideas can filter, spread, drift.

It takes the clutter of Shubigi’s work room and for sure, her body of work itself (itself a mass of incoherence, dissembled jumbling of facts, fiction, stories) and lays it out. The laying out might be a way of controlling, trapping, pinning down anxiety and waste (much as she pins down fragments from the shore, worn smooth like precious beads, and flora and fauna in a Brand’s Essence of Chicken box, in the exhibit, A Study of Leftovers).

There is a clarity in the museum and the mess here cannot recreate the mess of the studio. But in this excess of Shubigi’s corpus (the fragments and sheddings, of her physical and emotional time, gathered again into a body of work), the pristine detail of the work performs its mockery of scientific perfection — fiction here being so easily refolded and retold in the aesthetic of fact.

The start of the exhibition is a clean entry belying a flowering of too much art — not knowing where Shubigi’s work begins and where it ends in the first exhibit, the Blotting of the Ledger and assorted books, we are led to her Tree of Lies, a fertile, generative scribble of ink on paper, words on conquered filaments of nature, ex-wood. Here punning is at work: and we follow the trail of the tree’s long branches to its finite physical end: an opening, gap in the story (in “(    ) as extinction”).

On the walls inside, the red letters add doubt. Scarlet letters themselves, these hang off the walls as a summons, a beckoning, a vague, indeterminate threat to the purity of the white cube. They hint at vortex points of moral dissolution, where our view is thrown into doubt (“who needs a worldview outside of our purview?” Shubigi asks ironically in Useful Fictions, an exhibition in 2013). Yet this is never really threatening, or abject: its darker hue balances the playfulness of her work here: lighthearted, child-like, unlike that of Useful Fictions.

And so the red letters themselves, printouts of online conversations between the three curators, add a centrality to this exhibit: to understand Shubigi is to understand the meandering conversation of lost letters and gaps in response times, unfilled silences and anxious responses. Like leaves, they hang off the smooth walls, not quite there, somewhat precarious, their continued existence not entirely certain. Unwanted children perhaps; aborted.

Finally, the library and it’s almost unseen display of leftovers. Sifting through the library one sees the fascination Shubigi has with these authors and fiction, at the same time as one sifts through a personal fascination with Shubigi.

To have read these works is to have something of these authors in her, a slice of the magick, that spot of delicious solitude in a sun-lit library, leafing through pages, tales of fantastic creatures and impossible physics melding chimerically together with the sensual geometry of the room.

To hold excess together, the human mind weaves its own tales of the physical matter it sees. Cacophony overwrought becomes decay. But here the thoughts run in excess of the materiality of these things, and that perhaps gives this exhibition a sense at beauty…that and the music in the background, spilling over from the other exhibition, perhaps.

Shubigi Rao: Exquisite Corpse was exhibited as part of NUS Museum’s Curating Lab 2014 programme. It was jointly curated by Luca Lum, Chua Ying Qing and Raksha Mahtani. Luca is an alumna of USP.

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