‘Five Minutes With Nicola’ is a column where two artists have a conversation, to bring you the inner workings of the creative mind.
The inky undersea swirls of Shubigi Rao’s golden-topped whale, shadowed blue curls of octopus tentacles, and delicate yet dangerous tendrils of jellyfish skim the surface of Rao’s paper.
These artworks captured my imagination at Dear Painter last month. Since then, I have had the opportunity to dive deeper into her haunting artworks. What I found was a multi-layered, complex world inside each.
It is a deceptively difficult challenge for artists to transform medium to subject matter whilst maintaining uniqueness and validity. As curator June Yap puts it, “painting’s death knell has repeatedly been sounded“, and so painting has been reinvented, risen from the ashes, and become a subject in itself many times over. Yap explains Dear Painter ‘s concept as shifting the focus “from artistic hand to the material of paint in its guises of mark, craft, concept and objectification, recalling as well an aesthetic patrimony stretching back to the time of the nation’s syncretic modernist turn.”
Alongside the hand-inscribed annotations, Rao’s ink puddles also carry their own watery, spontaneous curlicues and diffusions. I indeed sensed something else present within the paint: Her medium was shaping the art in the way that ink sometimes can, but it also seemed to me that history, and perhaps even language was mingling with the ink too. Gazing at her works evokes a writers quill, an ocean, and a story book all at the same time.
Nicola Anthony: You are an artist working in a few mediums. How did you respond to the theme of Dear Painter?
Shubigi Rao: Looking at ‘Dear’ rather than ‘Painter’, the works take the form of love letters drawn and written in ink, to writers, artists, thinkers and scientists who I love but who are also fatally flawed. The imagery is drawn from my memories of reading old natural history books as a child in my parents’ library, and in the equally fatal flaw of relying on the pictures our brains choose to show us. There is a backstory to each work, and some are directly inspired by the words of the person to whom the work is addressed.
Nicola Anthony: How do you think painting has shaped your work or way of thinking as an artist?
Shubigi Rao: The backstories to the 6 pieces in Dear Painter show the contortions of my mind, and perhaps hint at the inner conversations I have when I work with ink on paper. It is akin more to an act of rereading (rather than when I paint), with leaps of logic and word-association. I suppose the fluidity of the medium works well with the pell-mell uncontrolled linking that my mind does when I work with ink. This doesn’t happen when I work in other media. Ink to me is inseparable from language and words.
Nicola Anthony: It would be fascinating to hear these stories and inspirations behind your artworks – What inspired them and how did they develop?
Shubigi Rao: There’s a liver-spotted love letter, For Borges, to an ancient, wise and blind turtle, very fashionable now despite being unfashionable in his own time, never winning his much-deserved Nobel Prize for Literature. Interestingly his magic-realism is more hip now, alien as it is to modernity. He once claimed that as his sight clouded, his inner vision cleared as he drew inward, away from the distractions of the world. I mourn how easy it is to appropriate him, to drag him back into the world, and how he has become the mainstay of muddied pseudo-erudite fiction. He seems increasingly fragile, the mythic turtle condemned to eternal wakefulness.
In For Kafka, lachry-morose, I suppose, I imagined an imaginary beast, the Catoblepas, a truly absurd animal that could only be designed by committee. Once I heard June Yap titled the show in reference to the painter Kippenberger, I was delighted, because one of my favourite works is his The Happy End to Kafka’s Amerika. And so this work is another love letter, but mailed via Kippenberger to Kafka, written in recognition of the burden of a full, heavy head on very unsteady feet.
Solipsisms for Descartes, from G. W. B. works as a corollary, or postscript to cogito ergo sum from G. W. Bush, man o’war and famous for ‘us vs. them’ as foreign policy. This unanimous, venomous statement is, if we think about it, a lazy, dangerous, solipsist inevitability of the Cartesian ‘I think, therefore I am’. ‘Us vs. them’ is also the Cartesian approach to humans vs. all other species, possibly the most dangerous solipsism of them all.
Finally, Q.E.D., relatively speaking is a reimagining of the unimaginable quantum realities of space (‘every solid is air’) as an escapist wormhole. The QED is tongue-in-cheek here, for it is (as of now) not possible to fully demonstrate quantum mechanics – either we fix the position of a particle, or we observe its movement – we cannot do both. At the quantum level, the act of observation changes the observed, and this makes signalling the completion of proof (quod erat demonstrandum), an impossibility. This work also links to Fictioneering for Jonah, where we are acronymatic, always rendered into fragments, reduced to empty space.
Nicola Anthony: You are inspired by many interests in diverse fields, such as archaeology, neuroscience, language, libraries, historical acts of cultural genocide, contemporary art theory and natural history. Could you tell us how some of these elements have influenced the works here?
Shubigi Rao: For Hugo, fabulist, from Gessner, confabulist, for instance, is inspired by Victor Hugo’s Toilers of the Sea features an epic battle with an octopus, which he cruelly maligned as a ‘devil-fish’, and describes how it attempts to suck the life blood of the protagonist, so that he ’empties into that horrible pouch, which is the monster itself’. Hugo was largely responsible for the pervasive myth of the octopus as evil hydra, and coupled with old maps of kraken and other tentacle sea monsters, this gentle, hugely intelligent and sentient creature was cast as a villain. Even Conrad Gessner, who first accurately rendered the octopus, mistakenly made the pupils round, unconsciously drawing on the standard monsters on maps. Even a scientist makes stuff up.
Fictioneering for Jonah refers to a beloved young neuroscientist and writer who wrote a wonderful piece on Cézanne, one of my favourite bits of science writing. I would read this piece aloud during the Art Theory class I taught on painting at Lasalle. As it turns out the writer (Jonah Lehrer) was vilified as a plagiarist who played fast and loose with the truth – he made up quotes that he attributed to Bob Dylan. In a classic case of literary irony, this brilliant student of the human brain was tricked by his own, and so Jonah, swallowed up by his whoppers, became the whale, the cautionary tale. I see him still as a visionary, though perhaps more as a fictioneer than scientist. Truth and lies make for great potboilers, inseparable as they are. Here is an excerpt of his writing:
What science forgets is that this isn’t how we experience the world. (We feel like the ghost, not like the machine.) It is ironic but true: the one reality science cannot reduce is the only reality we will ever know. This is why we need art. By expressing our actual experience, the artist reminds us that our science is incomplete, that no map of matter will ever explain the immateriality of our consciousness.
― Jonah Lehrer, Proust was a Neuroscientist
I also incorporated his reference to Plato’s metaphor, where we ‘aim to “cut nature at the joints, like a good butcher”… This is all we are: parts, acronyms, atoms’
In the work Jonah is the whale, swallowed and dissolved, so in dissecting my ambivalence towards this bright polymath plagiarist whose brilliant brain muddied his own memories (when he made up quotes by Bob Dylan – was he fully complicit? Did his brain trick him?), I was rendering him into matter, whale oil, blubber, stew and unglued parts. Of course I can only render through referencing my external acronymatic critical tools (and my equally treacherous memory). I realised I was applying the same method to him as I do when I think about art where paint is matter, subject is irrelevant and where we battle that old burden of art promising some great, secret truth.
You can find out more about Dear Painter at Sundaram Tagore here, and Shubigi Rao’s work can be found on her website. Her installations include handmade books, drawings, etchings, pseudo-science machinery and garbage. She was recently granted the Centre for Contemporary Art 2015-2016 Artist in Residence.
Images (c) Shubigi Rao