Making Waves

Published on 26 April 2017

Singapore sails into the 57th Venice Biennale with a giant ship that pays homage to the history of our region.



VESSEL OF CREATIVITY Zai Kuning on a boat to Mantang Island, Indonesia. (Photo: Wichai Juntavaro)

Think of the Venice Biennale as the Olympics of Visual Art. Every odd-numbered year since 1895, Venice becomes, for some six months, a gathering of contemporary artists from all around the world. Over 100 countries are invited to send teams of artists and curators to put up work complementing the central Biennale Arte exhibition.

Singapore has been represented at the Biennale since 2001, showcasing the work of artists like Ho Tzu Nyen (2011) and Charles Lim (2015). In this year’s edition, the Singapore Pavilion in the Sale d’Armi building will play host to the work of veteran Singapore artist, Zai Kuning.

One of Singapore’s pioneer experimental artists, Zai will present ‘Dapunta Hyang: Transmission of Knowledge’, which will be unveiled on 10 May by Minister for Culture, Community and Youth, Grace Fu.


MIXED MATERIALS The fourth installation of Zai Kuning’s ‘Dapunta Hyang’ series, titled ‘Encounters’, was on show at Hong Kong Art Basel in 2015. (Photo: Danny [email protected] Talents)

Zai describes the work as an artistic exploration of several overlapping strands from the forgotten ancient history of our region. It uncovers the history of the orang laut, a storied “sea people” who inhabited the coasts and waterways of the Riau Archipelago, as well as the long-forgotten figure of Dapunta Hyang Sri Jayanasa, the seventh-century king of the Srivijaya kingdom that spanned much of Southeast Asia.

The centrepiece, a massive 17m-long ship made from rattan, string, and beeswax, points to the legendary sea journey, a sacred voyage made by Dapunta Hyang through his kingdom.

“Rattan is flexible yet stubborn. It takes time and patience to learn how to tie them together,” says Zai. But for him, painstakingly building and presenting this work is a way to find a living connection to forgotten history.

Another idea in the work is how knowledge of the past is transmitted to the present. Says Zai, “I imagine the cargo they carried consisting of books… What knowledge is being carried and shared?”

Much of the knowledge Zai is sharing has to do with the communities living in Dapunta Hyang’s kingdom. Most significant for Zai is the culture of the orang laut, a community he has researched for almost 20 years. The ship is accompanied by photographs of Mak Yong practitioners, created in collaboration with Thai photographer Wichai Juntavaro, with whom Zai travelled in Thailand and Indonesia. Mak Yong is an ancient dance-drama form central to the orang laut. Because very few masters survive, it is virtually never seen or heard in its authentic form today. An audio recording of a Mak Yong master, speaking in an old Malay language, accompanies the exhibition.

Both Mak Yong and the journey of Dapunta Hyang are vestiges of an ancient regional history that has largely faded from mainstream memory. Zai’s creation is a form of artistic archival and documentation gleaned from a career of research and immersion in the precious few remaining orang laut communities in the region. “It is an opportunity for me to share with the audience a world that has been cast in darkness for several hundreds of years.”

The 57th Venice Biennale is on from 13 May to 26 Nov.


Zai Kuning turns seafaring dreams into reality.

VOLUMES OF MEANING Inspired by tombstones found on sacred hill, Bukit Seguntang, the artist carves boat-shaped motifs into books sealed in beeswax. (Photo: Ken Cheong)
DRAMATIC EFFECT Portrait of Zainah Binti Makusen, a Mak Yong performer. (Photo: Zai Kuning)

Artist Zai Kuning has worked across genres as diverse as painting, playwriting, poetry, music, and installation art. Over the years, one of the main strands in Zai’s work has been his passionate documentation and artistic representation of the orang laut and the history of the ancient Malay world.

“I first encountered the orang laut during my childhood, near the village where I was born: Lorong Abu Kassim at Pasir Panjang,” recalls Zai. “Our village was a 10-minute walk to the seashore facing Batam Island… It was said that orang laut were still lingering between the waters of Batam and Bintan in Indonesia.”

According to Zai, many people assume his pursuit of the orang laut comes from a curiosity about his own roots. But for him, it is more akin to a search for something lost in time. “It was a vague childhood memory but I felt it calling in my dreams. I was searching for the first people of Singapore.”

Zai speaks in earnest about dreaming. In his years of research into the orang laut, he suggests that the past seems to speak to him, supernaturally, through dreams. “I dream a lot. For example, in Bukit Seguntang [in Palembang, Indonesia], after I had visited the shrines, we went back to rest. I dreamt that someone came and told me I should go back to the hill to find a book.”

The next morning, he did so, and true enough, a caretaker at the shrine turned out to be in possession of a book about the Srivijaya kingdom that dated back to the 1940s.

For Zai, it is dreaming that differentiates what he does from the work of the historian or the archaeologist. “Artists are dreamers,” says Zai, pointing out that even though his work wades into the same murky universe as the historian, artists are inspired differently, led by experiences, imagination, and conviction. “Sometimes making sense, sometimes not.”

In the work leading to ‘Dapunta Hyang: Transmission of Knowledge’, Zai says the final form of the show owes a lot, once again, to his dreams. “When I was conceptualising the whole idea, Pak Khalid, who was the first man I met from the Mak Yong troupe in Mantang [Riau, Indonesia], appeared in my dream several times.” This inspired Zai to integrate Mak Yong into the work.

Dream, the deep past, and fading memory intertwine powerfully in Zai’s work, and this hard-to-grasp realm is the site of an important calling. “It is every intellectual’s responsibility to inform society of the importance of history, especially our own history. Without memory, we cannot be human.”

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