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Singapore’s Forgotten History on Display at the Venice Biennale

By Sinéad Tan

Zai Kuning on a sampan (boat) to Mantang Island.
Wichai Juntavaro
Zai Kuning on a sampan (boat) to Mantang Island.

Multidisciplinary artist Zai Kuning, 53, has been chosen to represent Singapore at the Venice Biennale, the pre-eminent contemporary visual art exhibition. The Venice Biennale was established in 1895 and has been held in alternate years since then, with Singapore having participated in every edition since 2001. Kuning’s presentation, Dapunta Hyang: Transmission of Knowledge, will be on display at the Singapore Pavilion from 13 May to 26 November 2017.

The work aims in part to shine a spotlight on the stories of the orang laut (sea people), the indigenous nomads who live in the waters around the Malay Peninsula and are believed to be the first inhabitants of Singapore. Also featured in the installation are performers of mak yong, a traditional form of dance-theatre. Kuning collaborated with Thai photographer Wichai Juntavaro to capture 30 portraits of living mak yong performers, highlighting an ancient art on the verge of extinction but safeguarded by a small community of performers. The community itself is neglected and embattled, having faced opposition and had their art form banned by the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party in 1991 for its animist characteristics.

Ota Fine ArtsThe first installation of Zai Kuning’s “Dapunta Hyang” series, “Dapunta Mapping the Melayu”.
The first installation of Zai Kuning’s “Dapunta Hyang” series, “Dapunta Mapping the Melayu”.

The centrepiece of the installation will be a 17-metre ship made from rattan, string and beeswax. It is the manifestation of Kuning’s two decades of ongoing research into the history, arts and culture of the pre-Islamic Riau Archipelago, particularly historical ruler Dapunta Hyang Sri Jayanasa, regarded as the first Maharaja of Srivijaya (which occupied much of Southeast Asia including modern-day Singapore from the 7th to 14th century).

The sculpture of the ship was inspired by the legend of Dapunta Hyang’s fleet of 20,000 on his sacred voyage to acquire blessings and conquer neighbouring lands, and has been exhibited in various permutations at Ota Fine Arts (2014), the Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore (2014), the Esplanade (2015), Art Basel Hong Kong (2015) and Palais de Tokyo in Paris (2015). The upcoming presentation at the Venice Biennale, a prestigious event in the contemporary arts world that attracts top artists and curators, is said by the National Arts Council to be its “most complex and intricate” incarnation to date.

“My interpretations concerning Srivijaya are personal, inspired by my own dreams, life experiences and imagination, especially about how they may have lived in the seventh century. I am not a researcher, nor academic nor historian. I am an artist and a storyteller.”

Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay, SingaporeThird installation of Zai Kuning’s “Dapunta Hyang” series, “The Fleeting World of Dapunta Hyang”.
Third installation of Zai Kuning’s “Dapunta Hyang” series, “The Fleeting World of Dapunta Hyang”.

Since obtaining his diploma and bachelor’s degree in Fine Arts at Lasalle College of the Arts and the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, Kuning has been the first president of The Artists Village, been appointed as The Substation’s first artist-in-residence, and had his works collected by the Singapore Art Museum and the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum.

His research and art delve into the lesser-known cultural heritage of the region and examine the transmission of this knowledge, appealing to the viewer’s imagination and encouraging them to traverse the stories of our past to better understand who we are in the present. In unearthing the forgotten history of Singapore on an international platform, Kuning calls attention to the need for dialogue on issues of identity, culture and history in Southeast Asia.

He spoke to T Singapore on the influences behind his choice of subject matter, his artistic process, and of the impact he hopes his works will have.

National Arts CouncilArtist Zai Kuning represents Singapore at the 57th Venice Biennale.
Artist Zai Kuning represents Singapore at the 57th Venice Biennale.

Your research and works on Dapunta Hyang have been over twenty years in the making. Could you please tell us more about the genesis of your interest in Dapunta Hyang and the orang laut, beginning in the 1990s?

The curiosity I had began in the mid-90s when I started to be very interested in Malay history. We know of the name orang laut (sea people) as one of the first people in the region, but not much was written about their lives and struggles in today’s existence. Hence in 2001, I proposed searching for the orang laut near Bintan Island, Indonesia, for a residency project at TheatreWorks (Singapore). I waited for them for 9 months and found them eventually. I followed the community until 2013, when I gave up as their pain and struggle was simply too much for me to bear looking at. I could only bring them some food and drinks. I made a film, Riau, to remember them.

Later in 2014, I became attracted to the mak yong (an ancient Malay opera) as I discovered through recommendation of a friend that a troupe resided on an island near Bintan as well, on Mantang Island. Mak yong is a dying art form and is it amazing how it has remained so resilient over time. I followed the troupe for more than thirteen years, sometimes inviting them to perform on their own island and on neighbouring islands so that they could perform an unabbreviated version of the opera, which consists of three-hour performances over two consecutive nights. Usually they only received invitations to perform half-hour pieces as cultural showcases.

National Arts CouncilZai Kuning and his team performing a ritual at the opening of the Singapore Pavilion.
Zai Kuning and his team performing a ritual at the opening of the Singapore Pavilion.

Why have you chosen to focus on Southeast Asian and Malay history specifically throughout your artistic career? What does it mean to you, and what are the main issues that you wish to examine through your work?

Through my travels and interactions with the orang laut and mak yong, I see similar struggles in the dissipation of the Malay consciousness in our ancestral history, beliefs and culture. A deeper thought grew in me as I deeply felt that Singaporeans and the people of Southeast Asia should try to give some time to think about this landscape which is a larger and more encompassing region broken up by manmade borders. There is the Malay world that the world knows very little about. It is our ancestral roots and route. Imagine, a vast landscape and a wider region that informs us of our cultural bearings - from Palembang (Sumatra), Saleindra (Java), Kedah (Malaysia), Chaiya (Thailand) up to Champa (Vietnam).

In general, the Malays in the region began their history as memories from the last Malay King, Parameswara, from 14th century. That was a time when the Malays were converting to become Muslims. But not all Malays did so. Not all Malays are Muslims, and they are still around us, like the orang laut. We have to respect this because they carry with them a history from before Islam arrived in this region. Singapore has always been a port that different ethnic Malays and non-Malays headed to. Bugis, Bawean, Batak, Acehnese, Balinese, Padang, Toba, Filipino, Austronesian people from Taiwan and many more came here for a better life. Is it enough to know or believe that Malay or Singaporean history begins from the 14th century? How is that possible? How could we have forgotten that our ancestors came from a much older time?

Hence in 2014, I created a work titled Dapunta Mapping the Melayu, the first time I invoked the name of the first Malay King, Dapunta Hyang Sri Jayanasa. He established the Srivijayan kingdom in the 7th century, and till the 14th century, the empire exercised power across modern-day Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia. It is a conquest that is not incomparable to the Greek or Mongolian conquests, but its history has been buried and forgotten. I think resurfacing this ancient history is equivalent to resurfacing questions on identity, culture and history; the necessity to trace our consciousness imaginatively and inquisitively in history so as to examine our present reality with replenished perspectives.

Zai KuningMak yong performer Zainah Binti Makusen, pictured at Mantang Island, Riau, in 2016.
Mak yong performer Zainah Binti Makusen, pictured at Mantang Island, Riau, in 2016.

You have experience in a variety of art forms - painting, dance, poetry, sculpture, acting, music, playwriting, directing and filmmaking among others. Of these, do you have a preferred art form and why? What was the process through which you decided the mediums for this presentation at the Venice Biennale?

I do not have a preferred art form. They are the same to me. In the early 90s, I was in Bali studying and I was told to follow a caretaker of an ‘art complex’ in Singaraja. It was a real Balinese village without tourists. I stayed there about ten days and in Bali for five months. I observed the Balinese way of life and realised that most Balinese perform several duties a day - farmer, priest, musician, driver, dancer, craftsmen etc. There is no such thing as specialising as a farmer and not doing anything else. It was from those five months of meeting old people from different villages and observing their rituals and their humour-entwined concerns for the fragility of the human body and life that I began to think more about ‘human potential’. Of those who are capable of many tasks in life for what they are, and can be; of the multi-talented beings with the multi-tasks to do or perform. I think this is where I began to think about being ‘multi-disciplinary’ in practice, where one is free from bias or from being discriminatory towards one form of art or practice. It brings out several abilities one has and finds links between one and another. All these different ‘things’ one does will eventually evolve towards what one may say is ‘the complete human being’.

As for the work at the Venice Biennale, it is the 5th ship that I have made since 2014. I chose the ship as a formal symbol of forgotten history as Southeast Asia is very much a maritime zone and the ship is a tool to transmit power as well as knowledge. It needed the magnitude of a stunning spectacle in order to ‘reawaken’ people’s consciousnesses, as well as the stillness for the audience to take time to reconsider questions about identity and history. Hence installation work and photography worked well for this purpose, together with the very faint voice of a mak yong master speaking in old Malay in the background.

National Arts CouncilDapunta Hyang: Transmission of Knowledge by Zai Kuning at the Singapore Pavilion in the Arsenale.
Dapunta Hyang: Transmission of Knowledge by Zai Kuning at the Singapore Pavilion in the Arsenale.

The focus of the installation is the 17m-long ship inspired by Dapunta Hyang’s voyages. Could you tell us more about the process of constructing it and the choice of materials used? What does it mean in the context of your body of work on Dapunta Hyang?

The ship is symbolic of the old Malay world, which was immensely powerful. I first used a ship as a central image for my work concerning 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 also because it is indigenous in the region. The wicker furniture that used to be extremely popular here is evidence of how rattan is valued as a building material. But the production of such furniture is laborious, and so is the entire process of making the ship. To prepare and tie the rattan alone requires three men over a period of one month. We are working on a very tight timeline to build the ship onsite, but I am happy with the progress.

Back to using rattan. It is not factually based on, for instance, the Malay using rattan to build ships -- of course that would not be possible. It is largely based on an ancient way of binding things together. To work this way with 'restrictions' actually helps expand my creative mind on how to make the ship without other 'modern' methods of joining things such as using nails or screws. I learn that it’s not so much about fantastic techniques but purely patience. At times being tired and even lazy, I wonder about taking shortcuts 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.

The books which the ship “unload” onto the present are used as metaphors. Dipped in beeswax, they symbolise the idea that information is sealed and is “in the dark”. The books represent knowledge; sealed, they represent knowledge that is not available. It is not entirely about 'censorship of history' but simply the erosion of history over time, and about losing interest and faith in what was there before. The red strings represent the indelible bloodlines that connect the past to the present.

Despite its stunning magnitude, this ship is only a skeletal frame. It is symbolic of how history, even one of a great empire and culture, is so fragile and easily erased from people's memories over time. I felt a calling to haul a ship from the deep bottom of the sea, so as to inspire people to rethink our identities by re-examining our past.

Zai KuningZai Kuning at Venice International Performance Art Week in 2014.
Zai Kuning at Venice International Performance Art Week in 2014.

You have created works inspired by diverse topics such as Southeast Asian history in this case, the meaning of art (“After ‘The Space’”, 1992), and poverty (“A Bowl of Rice”, 2008). What are the issues or stories you would like to tackle in your future works?

As I mentioned earlier, I am not a fan of specialisation. I go through life as a sojourner and look out for the signs that demand my attention as an artist. For now, my research work has led me to discover menora (dance drama), which I believe to be the origin of mak yong. It is likely that I will go more often to southern Thailand to look for the master and the landscape that has given birth to to this art form.

What are the takeaways that you hope Singaporean audiences, and the international audiences at the Venice Biennale, will have after 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 where people are discriminated against due to superficial understandings of history, culture, and ethnicity. 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.

The Singapore Pavilion is commissioned by the National Arts Council and supported by the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth. Join the conversation via Facebook and Instagram @NACSingapore, and the hashtag #SingaporeInVenice.