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Zai Kuning's Singapore Pavilion at Venice Came to Him in a Dream

ByYunyi Lau
Zai Kuning's Singapore Pavilion at Venice Came to Him in a Dream

Artist Zai Kuning represents Singapore at the 57th Venice Biennale (Image courtesy of the National Arts Council)

One of the most exciting art events in the art world calendar is arguably the Venice Biennale, which happens once every two years. This year's theme is 'Viva Arte Viva', an exclamation of the passion for art and for the state of the artist. This year the National Arts Council has selected Singaporean multidisciplinary artist Zai Kuning to represent the country, with the work Dapunta Hyang: Transmission of Knowledge, featuring a ship that took the artist and his team over three weeks to construct in-situ in the Singapore Pavilion. We were lucky enough to speak with the artist about how he came to envision this work and his plans for the future in the interview below!


Congratulations on being selected by the National Arts Council to represent Singapore at the 57th Venice Biennale! How did you feel when you first heard that you were going to represent your country at such a major international exhibition?

I am very honoured to represent Singapore, especially knowing there are many other artists who are as committed in their art. The Venice Biennale is an important opportunity for Singaporean visual artists to showcase our work to an international audience. For most artists, the Venice Biennale is the dream platform and people start to pay attention to what we have to say. I am grateful to have this opportunity to share this history at the Venice Biennale, which I feel should be told so that it can inspire not only Singaporeans, but people around the world. This is one of the most important aspects of the work and effort: to unleash our imagination about ‘who we are’ and ‘what we are’ through installation art.


"Dapunta Hyang: Transmission of Knowledge" by Zai Kuning at the Singapore Pavilion in the Arsenale
Image courtesy of the National Arts Council


You will be presenting "Dapunta Hyang: Transmission of Knowledge" at the Singapore Pavilion in the Sale d’Ami building at the Arsenale for the Biennale this year. The work is a look at the stories of the orang laut, focusing on Dapunta Hyang Sri Janyanasa’s journey through Srivijaya. It is a history that has been somewhat forgotten, but you have spent 20 years tracing it. How did you discover the history of Dapunta Hyang? Why are you so interested in this particular historical reference?

The first instance which I invoked the name Dapunta Hyang in my work was in 2014. But from the mid-90s, I began to be very interested in Malay history and under a residency at Theatreworks (Singapore), I set out looking for the orang laut (sea people) who once lived as the first people of Singapore. The discrimination that the orang laut faced as people who still observed a nomadic and animistic way of life disturbs me deeply. This is similar with how an old Malay dance-drama, mak yong, is also censored heavily for its animistic rituals and stories rooted in Hindu and some Buddhist folklores. The art form is on the brink of extinction. I have worked with a mak yong troupe in Riau Archipelago since 2004, inviting them to perform on their own island several times, in order keep the most authentic version of their tradition alive.

The very fact that the Malay ancestry and tradition is quickly disappearing and forgotten is something I feel very sad about. In general, the Malays in the region began their history as memories from the last Malay King who was Parameswara, from 14th/15th century. That was a time when the Malays were converting to become Muslims. But not all Malays did so. Not all Malays are Muslim, and they are still around us, like the orang laut. We have to respect this because they carry with them a history before Islam arrived in this region.

One day, I dreamt about Dapunta Hyang Sri Jayanasa, the first Malay King who established the Srivijayan Empire which stretches across present day Southeast Asia from Sumatra up to Vietnam. He and an army of 20,000 marched on a sacred journey, called Siddhayatra, crossing the Straits of Melaka towards the South China Sea, to promote Buddhism and acquire blessings. Can you imagine it? The first Malay king was building Buddhist stupa where he set foot on!

A closer look at the books sealed in beeswax that form part of the exhibition titled "Dapunta Hyang: Transmission of Knowledge" by Zai Kuning
Image courtesy of the National Arts Council

To make sure that I am not just purely dreaming, I travelled to Palembang and Muara Jambi (Sumatra, Indonesia), and asked my collaborator, Wichai Juntavaro, to go to Kedah (Malaysia) and Chaiya (Surat Thani, Thailand) to document similar-looking stupas which were built by the Srivijayan Empire over a few centuries. These historical sites point out clearly that the Malays had gone through a very different period of consciousness before Islam came to the region.

From here an urge or inspiration came: that I should be making a work talking about the Srivijaya Empire and its first king, through an image of a ship which had been dug from the earth. It is ambitious, and I am not a historian. But I know through many dreams that I have to open the box, let people know of this very first king in Malay history, all of which have been in the dark, except in Palembang where the Kingdom began. It is a mission rather than an art project.

It has been a great journey since I began working on Dapunta Hyang. I don’t know how many times a day I say ‘Srivijaya’ and pronounce ‘Dapunta Hyang’, names that I call on more often than my parents. It is my life.


Visitor to the Singapore Pavilion looking at the 17-metres long ship central to the exhibition titled "Dapunta Hyang: Transmission of Knowledge" by Zai Kuning
Image ocurtesy of the National Arts Council


For the biennale, you will be constructing one of your iconic ships made from a traditional technique that only employs the use of rattan, string and beeswax. It will be largest and most intricate one you have made, measuring 17 metres long. I think that this relates very beautifully to the fact that Venice is a city that has very strong ties to the sea. How did you learn to build these structures? How does the presence of the ship relate to the idea of knowledge transference that Dapunta Hyang seeks to expound on?

Yes, Venice was unsurpassed for centuries as the greatest commercial power in the European world. This is not dissimilar to the ports found in the Malay-Srivijayan Kingdom, which prospered with maritime trade and skilled seafaring people. In these two parallel kingdoms, boats and ships are the primary vessels to transport people, materials, and knowledge.

When I read about Dapunta Hyang and how his army of 20,000 marched on a sacred journey, called Siddhayatra, crossing the Straits of Melaka, and towards South China Sea, I began to imagine how their ships were made. How many trees were brought down, and how many craftsmen employed for such a huge voyage? How big were the ships, and how many people were in each ship? I imagine the cargo they carried; consisting of books, as this journey is also about ‘the transmission of knowledge’, for this first ruler also built several stupas. What knowledge is being carried and shared?

From here an urge or inspiration came: that I should be making a work talking about the Srivijayan Empire and its first king, through an image of a ship which had been dug from the earth.

Month after month, for years, I would look at the boats and ships, whenever I travelled to Riau. I searched the internet for anything on ship-building histories and culture. I also began to imagine how ships are made, how ancient people would observe leaves floating on water to get the ideal shape for their boats — and how the veins on the leaves so resembled the spine and ribcage of the human anatomy. And how they went from sampans, to boats, to ships.

Part of the installation "Dapunta Hyang: Transmission of Knowledge" by Zai Kuning, at the Singapore Pavilion in the Arsenale
Image courtesy of the National Arts Council

I also began to know a little about the Phinisi ship, a traditional ship of the Bugis-Makassar (as I am a descendant of the Bugis of Makassar, known to be great builders of houses and ships). It is indeed one of the most powerful, beautiful, traditional hand-built ships in the world. It is said that like many other big ships, the Phinisi could be transformed into a warship at any time. Any merchant setting sail on a long voyage knew that a ship is a world filled with ‘everything’, including men with ability to fight in a battle.

I first used a ship as a central image for my work concerning the Malay history in 2014, for a work titled ‘Dapunta Mapping the Melayu’. I chose to build a skeletal ship, using rattan, string and beeswax and this symbol has amplified in size over the years.

The reason I chose to use rattan is because of its tenacity - it is stubborn yet flexible - and that it is indigenous in the region. It is not factually based on, for instance, the Malay using rattan to build ship, of course that would not be possible. It is largely based on ancient way of binding things together. To work this way with 'restriction' actually helps expand my creative mind on how to make the ship without other 'modern' joining ways such as using nails, screws and other methods. I learn too it’s not about fantastic technique but purely patience. At times being tired and even lazy, I wonder about taking short cuts or an easier way. But there isn’t one as long as I use only strings. I must learn how to tie them together, to be patient. Patience is the key to all the grand voyages made in the past.


A close-up of the 17-metres long ship, constructed using rattan, beeswax and strings
Image courtesy of the National Arts Council


Dapunta Hyang includes 24 photographic portraits of living mak yong performers, who are a pre-Islamic operatic tradition with Hindu-Buddhist roots that were once widespread, but are now dying out. You collaborated with Thai photographer Wichai Juntavaro on this element of the work. What was it like working with Juntavaro? What sort of parallels or divergences do you see with the mak yong and the orang laut?

Wichai followed me to Mantang island in 2013 to document a two-night performance. He is familiar with topics about the marginalised communities as he also documents people living along the Thai borders. I enjoy the conversations with him very much. Being with him also helps me to expand my knowledge and understanding of Thailand, which is a part of the Srivijayan Empire.

Both orang laut and mak yong came from a world before organised religion, capitalism, and industrialism became the leading forces of human consciousness. Their beliefs are connected with and inspired by nature. But when you mentioned animism nowadays, people would either laugh at it or consider it as ‘black magic’. Like many other indigenous peoples in the world, they have become pariahs in their own domain. One of the orang laut elders told me “all of them talk about progress, but we tell ourselves that this is a curse which has fallen upon us and it is the end of us. We do not die immediately but slowly.”

Mak yong performers are islanders and they have a choice to decide on how they can sustain their tradition, which they did, as a young generation of performers is initiating to learn the opera. Orang laut, on the other hand, is battling with the mining industry and hoteliers who are buying and closing off their natural environment. I stopped visiting the sea people in 2014 as I could not bear to witness their slow death.


Zainah Binti Makusen, mak yong performer (Riau-2016)
Image courtesy of the National Arts Council


"Dapunta Hyang" is a work that has a very specific historical context. Do you think this would resonate with the international audience at the Venice Biennale, when the work is taken away from its local context and displayed in an international platform? What do you hope would be the experience of visitors viewing your work?

I think everyone should be interested in his or her history and discover a wealth of knowledge within. History shows us that much of how we identify ourselves and others today may be misdirected or manipulated by the information that has been either hidden or forgotten. Our memory and awareness of our ethnicity, which naturally has to be a composition of many cultural influences, is extremely important now in a world that is increasingly divided by petty arguments.

Through this journey by Dapunta Hyang, I want to open up a dialogue on issues of identity, culture and history amongst Malays in Southeast Asia. I hope that the audience can spend time reflecting upon this as they take in the different elements of the work: of craft in the sculpture of the ship, the subject of knowledge as embodied in the waxed books, and the portraits of the mak yong performers. It is also an opportunity for me to share with the international audience a world that has been cast in darkness for several hundreds of years.


Artist Zai Kuning represents Singapore at the 57th Venice Biennale.
Image courtesy of the National Arts Council


Even though it is probably the furthest thing from your mind, as you must be so busy with Biennale preparations, do you have anything lined up after? Is there something that you are looking to explore next in your work?

Yes, I am already thinking about what to do after the Venice Biennale. The current edition has led me to at least two different landscapes with magical stories of their own. Palembang (Indonesia) where the sacred mountain Bukit Seguntang is, and Phattalung (Thailand) where the menora originated and is still very active. I have obviously been knocking on their doors when I took on Dapunta and mak yong as the heart of my work. Now the doors are literally opening right in front of my eyes. My next journey has already been written. I am going right in there.



Any views or opinions in the post are solely those of the authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the company or contributors.

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