Q&A WITH ARTIST ZAI KUNING

Published on 30 March 2018

Artist Zai Kuning represented Singapore at the 57th Venice Biennale (Credit: National Arts Council)

Dapunta Hyang: Transmission of Knowledge by Zai Kuning was presented at the Singapore Pavilion for the 57th Venice Biennale last year to much acclaim.

By Melanie Lee

This year, TheatreWorks, with the support of the National Arts Council and the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth, will be bringing this multidisciplinary exhibition back to Singapore from 12 April to 13 May 2018.

The work is a culmination of Zai’s ongoing body of work that investigates Malay history and culture through orang laut (sea people), mak yong (ancient Malay opera) and the ancient Srivijayan Empire from the 7th century. He tells The A List more about what this exhibition’s homecoming means to him.


How would the exhibition set-up in Singapore be different from the one in Venice last year?

We try our best to make the main installation as close to the one in Venice, even though the ship was not designed to be made, dismantled, and assembled again.

Besides the main installation, the exhibition in Singapore offers audiences the larger context from which the work is developed. The short film, Riau, which documents my search for the orang laut (sea people) when I did a residency at TheatreWorks in 2001, will be screened alongside images of the historical sites of the old Srivijayan Empire. I am also working on a new film called Chronicles of Amnesia which traces my journey for the past 20 years. This work in progress will be shown with a live music performance where I am making sound and music with Mike Cooper (U.K). Importantly, we have two most respectable persons, archaeologist John N. Miksic and art historian T. K. Sabapathy, to talk about the symbolisms that exist in the artwork and in Malay history.

How did your fascination with such ancient history about this region develop?

It all began in 1999. I started to think more about the local and regional history, starting from the search for orang laut. My encounters with the orang laut led me to a troupe that performs mak yong, an ancient Malay opera. Understanding their struggles, as old animist/Hinduism traditions which are shunned by the current mainstream, made me wonder how we have arrived at such prejudice.  From there, I realised that much of our history is not really studied or looked at, especially from the artist’s perspective. So, I went much further than the common understanding of the length of our history – 200 years, 700 years – and delved into imagining what happened 1,400 years ago.

What fascinates you about the Srivijayan Empire?

The Srivijayan Empire and stories which are related to it are often seen as myths. This is not true. By travelling to Palembang and Muro Jambi (Sumatra), I saw the evidence of history. Dapunta Hyang existed as human being, and that is what is important to me. It is not simply a fascination.

What do you think Singaporeans should understand more about the orang laut (who are usually just perceived as pirates)?

If we consider Riau Archipelago before the independence of Singapore and Malaysia, our archipelago consists of more than 3,000 islands. Within this maze of islands, fishing is the basic mode of survival for many people. In a way, they see themselves as fisherman and islanders, rather than orang laut. They move from one island to another following the season and the area that they inhabit often includes more than fifty to one hundred islands. They are considered ‘the old malay’. They spoke ‘archaic’ malay in term of lingo and the standard Bahasa Melayu came from ‘them’. Bahasa Melayu Kuno means the ancient Malay language. It is sad that most mainlanders don’t understand this old life form and treat them as the pariah of the sea instead.

Tourism and land development in Thailand, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Singapore, deal with re-development of the coastal regions. The most common scenario is to sell the land to private developers to build resorts and condominiums. In most cases, this means taking away the living spaces, memories, culture, and survival of the islanders who have been there for centuries. If we understand the islanders as the old inhabitants, we will find the most respectful and humane ways to work with them towards so-called development. Only in are we able to preserve the uniqueness of our heritage. So far, I am doubtful if there is much or any interest in understanding and respecting the islanders. While this may seem like an “aboriginal rights” issue, if you look at the essence of it, it affects every one of us whose existence is constantly threatened by development and re-development decided by the state and corporations.

While the work was exhibited in Venice, how did visitors from all around the world respond to it?

From several Europeans or even people from Asia, their surprise is that they have not heard of Srivijayan Empire. For some, they simply lack the information on this part of the world and had to begin with finding out where Sumatra is, and cities like Palembang. Parallels were drawn between Venice and Srivijaya – they were both important maritime powers which existed at a similar time.

I think there are also many who are amused that I have kept on working on the same topic. Dapunta Hyang: Transmission of Knowledge is an accumulation of nearly 20 years of work in progress. The work is still “progressing”.

How has this long-term project shaped your understanding of what is happening in Singapore presently?

Singapore keeps changing with every influx of immigrants. It is important that we understand our local history from a well-informed, open-minded and inter-cultural perspective because this is what is ingrained in us. The exchange of many cultures, which started over a thousand years ago, is what makes Singapore, Singapore.

I think we have a situation now where many new citizens, or even locals, are not well informed about our local history. There is the danger of diluting or generalising our history into convenient categories such as “Chinese, Malay, Indian, Eurasian”. What I feel strongly from these 20 years of artistic exploration is that every culture is a confluence of other cultures. If we stubbornly insist that one belief, one definition, or one way of living is more legitimate or correct than another’s, then we are in trouble of erasing history, isolating the minorities, and understanding who we really are as Singaporeans.

Dapunta Hyang Transmission of Knowledge by Zai Kuning at the Singapore Pavilion in the Arsenale (Credit: National Arts Council)
A closer look at the books sealed in beeswax that form part of the exhibition titled Dapunta Hyang Transmission of Knowledge by Zai Kuning (Credit: National Arts Council)
Srivijaya Map (2017)_ Credit: Zai Kuning
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