Singapore’s National Arts Council recently announced the appointment of its Venice Biennale artistic team for 2017.
The announcement published on 17 August 2016, reveals the proposal for next year’s Venice Biennale as “a culmination of over 20 years of Zai’s research on Malay culture and history in Southeast Asia”.
The National Arts Council (NAC) will support the creative project proposed by artist Zai Kuning and independent curator June Yap, entitled Dapunta Hyang, as the Singapore Pavilion’s presentation at the 57th Venice Biennale opening on 13 May 2017. The proposal is the result of over 20 years of the artist’s research into Malay culture and the history of Southeast Asia, which forms a part of
a broader inquiry on identity that includes his having spent more than a decade with and creating work on the Orang Laut (sea gypsies) — the pre-nation and pre-colonial inhabitants of both island and sea in the region.
Ms Kathy Lai, CEO of NAC and Co-Chair of the Commissioning Panel, was quoted in the press release as saying:
Dapunta Hyang invites us to reflect on the region we are in, its past and how its heritage has been transmitted through the trajectories of empire, language and culture.
Singapore in Venice: the Biennale artistic team
Zai Kuning (b. 1964, Singapore) is an artist whose practice defies any attempts at categorisation. Since receiving his BFA in 1995 from LASALLE College of the Arts–Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, majoring in ceramic sculpture, Zai has worked for more than two decades in media and disciplines as diverse as sculpture, installation, painting and drawing, experimental sound and music, video, film, performance art, dance and theatre. The artist is constantly engaging with the unique culture and ecology of the Southeast Asian region, and through his openness to experimentation, he has pioneered a versatile multi-disciplinary and improvisational practice.
He was the first president of The Artists Village (TAV), an artist collective founded by Tang Da Wu in Singapore. After leaving TAV, Zai formed the Metabolic Theatre Laboratory (MTL), a research-oriented dance theatre company, and its productions toured Hong Kong, Japan, and Korea. Zai’s work is part of important institutional collections, including the Singapore Art Museum and the Fukuoka Asian Art Museum.
He has participated in notable group exhibitions such as “Who interprets the world?” at the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art, Kanazawa, Japan (2015); “Secret Archipelago” at Palais De Tokyo, Paris, France (2015); “Not Against Interpretation” (PDF download) at the Singapore Art Museum (2013); “Welcome to the Jungle: Contemporary Art in Southeast Asia from the Collection of Singapore Art Museum” at the Yokohama Museum of Art, Japan (2013); and The 2nd Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art, The Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane, Australia (1996).
His recent solo exhibitions include “Ombak Hitam” at Ota Fine Arts, Tokyo (2016); “Dapunta Hyang – Transmission of Knowledge” at the Esplanade, Singapore (2015); “IMMIGRANT: The Question of Moral” at The Substation Gallery in collaboration with Vichukorn Tangpaiboon (2011), amongst others.
June Yap is a curator and art historian based in Singapore, who prior to going independent in 2008 was curator at the Singapore Art Museum and subsequently Deputy Director and Curator of the Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore. Among her most notable curatorial projects are “EVEREST” with Ang Sookoon at Objectifs (Singapore); “No Country: Contemporary Art for South and Southeast Asia” as part of the Guggenheim UBS MAP Global Art Initiative (New York, Hong Kong and Singapore); “The Cloud of Unknowing” at the 54th Venice Biennale with artist Ho Tzu Nyen; and the video programme “You and I, We’ve Never Been So Far Apart: Works from Asia for VideoZone5” at the Center for Contemporary Art in Tel Aviv (Israel).
Yap is the author of numerous exhibition catalogues and essays, including most recently “The Art of Memory’ for John Clang’s The World Surrounding an Indoor Plant” (FOST Gallery); “WHITEWASH” for Warren Khong (Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore); and “The Material of Freedom” for emerging artist Jane Lee’s exhibition “Freely, Freely” (Singapore Tyler Print Institute).
The Singapore Pavilion at Venice Biennale 2017
Dapunta Hyang is Zai’s most complex and intricate installation to date, and is a continuation of his series of installations previously presented at Ota Fine Arts (2014), the Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore (2014), Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay (2015), Art Basel Hong Kong (2015) and Palais de Tokyo (Paris, 2015). The artist will working on the project in his studio space at Singapore’s Gillman Barracks and local audiences will be able to preview the work in progress and interact with Zai.
The project for the exhibition at the Biennale extends a recent series of work that takes as its vantage point Dapunta Hyang Sri Jayanasa, the first Maharaja of the early pre-Islamic kingdom of Śrīvijaya who ruled between 671 and 702 CE. The empire of Śrīvijaya was considered the first large state of ‘world economic stature’ of its time in Southeast Asia. It was located at the crossroads of the flourishing maritime route between China and India, where commerce was a catalyst for an exchange of cultural influences, religious ideas and goods. Zai captures the success and influence of the in a “symbol of voyage” central to the exhibition.
Dapunta Hyang also engages with the history of the Malay language and the establishment of Old Malay as the region’s lingua franca. Zai also centres his work on the Orang Laut, and his documentation of what remains of the Mak Yong opera in Riau on the transmission and spread of the Malay language. For the artist, language is an important element of the region’s cultural history and relationships, as the press release explains,
Where artefact may not survive the passage of time, in language we find the traces of cultural development and transmission […].
Zai explains about his Venice Biennale project:
Dapunta Hyang allows me to delve deep into a history and heritage of Southeast Asia not commonly found in history books on the Malay peoples and culture. […] it is not a presentation of history in material and object, or as ideology and in politics. Rather, it is about a sense of fellowship and solidarity that arises from knowing who we are. I am keen to have audiences spend time reflecting upon the elements the work combines: of craft in the sculpture of the ship, the subject of knowledge as embodied in the waxed books, the portraits of islanders and Mak Yong, and the voice of the Mak Yong master who speaks in a language rarely heard now in Singapore and Malaysia, even Indonesia.
As for the concept of transmission of knowledge, it is not merely about a passing of information. Instead the receiver’s imagination is essential to this process. But even received knowledge and their interpretation should not simply be taken as given. Dapunta Hyang is thus a prompt and a means to attend to this history and the knowledge that go back in time. Not just from 50 or 200 years ago, but centuries, back to the 7th century, in order to understand what and who we are, and the actions and even accidents that brought us here.
C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia
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