Zai Kuning on the Singapore Pavilion project at Venice Biennale 2017 – interview

Zai Kuning delves into ancient shipbuilding techniques and the animist cultures of Southeast Asia for the Venice Biennale 2017.

Art Radar talks to Singapore artist Zai Kuning about “Dapunta Hyang: Transmission of Knowledge”, the work being prepared for the Singapore Pavilion at the 57th Venice Biennale.

Zai Kuning, Artist, Singapore Pavilion Venice Biennale 2017. Image courtesy National Arts Council.

Zai Kuning, Artist, Singapore Pavilion Venice Biennale 2017. Image courtesy National Arts Council.

The Singapore pavilion at the 57th Venice Biennale will consist of a work made by Singaporean Zai Kuning. A pioneering multidisciplinary artist who works across painting, drawing, performance, dance, theatre, poetry, music, sculpture, photography, film and writing, Zai Kuning has regularly collaborated with other artists, dancers and musicians who specialise in Asian classical traditions. He has worked for more than two decades researching the history and culture of Southeast Asian peoples.

Fifth installation of Zai Kuning’s “Dapunta Hyang” series. Palais de Tokyo, Paris 2015. Image courtesy of the artist.

Fifth installation of Zai Kuning’s “Dapunta Hyang” series at Palais de Tokyo, Paris 2015. Image courtesy the artist.

Entitled “Dapunta Hyang: Transmission of Knowledge”, the pavilion work consists of a large sculpture of a ship. The pavilion project, which was originally going to be curated by June Yap, builds on 20 years of Zai Kuning’s research into Malay history and culture, specifically the nomadic seafaring Orang Laut people of Southeast Asia, who preceded the colonial and national regimes. By delving into past histories that pre-date colonialism and the nation state, Zai Kuning’s pavilion work is set to reflect on post-national and de-colonial futures. Art Radar talks to the artist about the work.

First installation of Zai Kuning’s “Dapunta Hyang” series, “Dapunta Mapping the Melayu” at Ota Fine Arts, Singapore 2014. Image courtesy the artist and Ota Fine Arts.

First installation of Zai Kuning’s “Dapunta Hyang” series, “Dapunta Mapping the Melayu” at Ota Fine Arts, Singapore 2013. Image courtesy the artist and Ota Fine Arts.

The 2017 Singapore Pavilion’s title, “Dapunta Hyang: Transmission of Knowledge”, makes a reference to your 2014 project “The Fleeting World of Dapunta Hyang”. Dapunta Hyang refers to the first Maharaja of the Buddhist kingdom of Śrīvijaya between the 8th and 12th centuries CE, on the island of Java. Could you tell us a bit about what informed your decision to revisit this work for the context of the pavilion in Venice?

The first work I made calling the name of Dapunta Hyang Jayanasa was in 2013 at Ota Fine Arts where I had a solo show. The work is called Dapunta Mapping the Melayu. From then on, I did not stop making work inspired by our first king. So there is no revisiting of a work in my presentation at the Venice Biennale. Even if I had not been invited to the pavilion, I would have made my work. It is my lifetime interest in my own history – my life. Dapunta Hyang Jayanasa came from Palembang and he was officially stationed in Bukit Seguntang. Palembang is in Sumatra, not in Java. Many confuse Srivijaya with Majapahit (Java Empire). They are different. Malay and Javanese.

The curiosity I had was from the mid-1980s when I began to be very interested in Malay history. What I found out more than 15 years later is that the Malays in the region began their history as memories from the last Malay King who was Parameswara, from the 14/15th century. That was a time when the Malays were converting to become Muslims. But not all Malays did so. Some of the sea people and islanders I met in Riau Archipelago are animists. Their rituals follow Hindu or Buddhist traditions, not Islam. I feel much more complete in some way that I do dig deeper into the old Malay world which is not Muslim. Not all Malay people 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. The basic in all religions is that we respect people, their feelings and their way. Condemnation is nothing more than personal desire and arrogance.

A stone statue of the Hindu god Vishnu found in a Buddhist temple. Wat Phra Boromathat Chaiya, Surat Thani 2017. Photo: Wichai Juntavaro. Image courtesy the artist.

A stone statue of the Hindu god Vishnu found in a Buddhist temple. Wat Phra Boromathat Chaiya, Surat Thani 2017. Photo: Wichai Juntavaro. Image courtesy the artist.

What do you see as the main opportunity in representing Singapore at the Venice Biennale? What do you hope to achieve with sharing this project, rooted in local histories, in an international context?

What I present is not about Singapore history, but rather it is the history and living cultures across Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand up to Vietnam. This is the Malay world that the world knows very little about. Even the Malays in Singapore do not know it well. Singapore is one part of the Malay landscape. It is a port and a small island at the end of a crossroad between Straits of Melaka and South China Sea. That is the reason why it was a pirate’s favourite zone, especially Straits of Melaka.

The Venice Biennale is an opportunity to open the door for the world to imagine this very Malay empire. The power it exercised over the region is not incomparable to the Greek or Mongolian conquests, but the history of the empire is buried and forgotten. Through this work I am very happy to introduce my very first king ‘Lord Dapunta Hyang Jayanasa’. He is real and not a myth.

A typical house, rumah laut (stilt house). Mantang island, Riau, 2016. Photo: Zai Kuning. Image courtesy the artist.

A typical house, rumah laut (stilt house). Mantang island, Riau, 2016. Photo: Zai Kuning. Image courtesy the artist.

To what extent is this project connected to ideas of grief and the struggles of disenfranchised people in the region? What are the main issues – especially in terms of displacement of populations – that your work seeks to intervene into?

Until today, there is uncertainty among the local Malays here in Singapore on the issue of their ethnicity. Singapore has always been a port where different ethnic Malays and non-Malays head for. If we began with Parameswara, it means that from the 14th century Singapore has been claimed as Malay property, not during Raffles’ time in the 18th century. Bugis, Bawean, Batak, Acehnese, Balinese, Padang, Toba, Filipino, Austronesian people from Taiwan and many more came here for a better life.

All these different ethnic groups in their own special way created new groups of people (and consciousness) as a result of inter-marriage and multicultural society. It can also mean that throughout the years of enduring one another, the people who came to this island found their way to co-exist with different belief systems when it came to the idea of religion. Singapore is the result of a mixed group of people and eventually, these different ethnic groups came to identify themselves as ‘Malay’. The different ethnicities within the Malay realm are not too different from Chinese dialect groups, but the Hokkien, Cantonese and Hainanese have differentiated themselves clearly, even until now.

Islam is one thing that unites the Malays now. It is common that when a Malay appears to be less Muslim, even his family will distance themselves from him and vice versa. I often see this tragedy of broken relationships, which makes me heartbroken.

Third installation of Zai Kuning’s “Dapunta Hyang” series, “The Fleeting World of Dapunta Hyang” Esplanade, Singapore 2015 Image courtesy Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay, Singapore.

Third installation of Zai Kuning’s “Dapunta Hyang” series, “The Fleeting World of Dapunta Hyang” Esplanade, Singapore 2015. Image courtesy Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay, Singapore.

The Malay Muslims have to overcome this discriminating mindset which can make them very judgmental towards their own people who are ‘less Muslim’. It is through revisiting and learning from history that I believe the Malay can see themselves in the mirror. We don’t have a written language. We wrote in Sanskrit for a few hundred years and then changed to the Arabic writing system and finally, now we write and read in alphabet. The Malays went through animism, Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam and even Christianity.

So what really needs to be transmitted to the people here is how we understand the Malay peoples’ history, and the ethnicities, which are varied and rich. I often feel it is a mistake that now when the Chinese or Indian and others see a Malay, they see a Muslim. When I see an Indian man, do I see a Hindu? A Chinese, a Buddhist or Christian? We have become very narrow-minded rather than ‘spiritual’. We should always remind our logical mind that people are free to be what they feel like. They should be able to be everything they could. I have met enough Malays in Singapore, Malaysia, Bintan, Batam, Daik, Lingga, Palembang and Jambi. There is a kind of Melayu who respects all forms of belief systems. If God is great, everything is under his wing. That we believe in God, simply means we believe in goodness. Even if you don’t believe in God, we still want to be good?

Fourth installation of Zai Kuning’s “Dapunta Hyang” series, “Encounters” Hong Kong Art Basel, Hong Kong 2015 Photo: of Danny Yeo @Pure Talents. Image courtesy the artist.

Fourth installation of Zai Kuning’s “Dapunta Hyang” series, “Encounters”, Art Basel Hong Kong 2015. Photo: of Danny Yeo @Pure Talents. Image courtesy the artist.

It goes back to a very personal question on how we understand humility towards others. People believe in many things. Believing in God, believing in race, believing in political ideas, believing in the system of the economy. It is all religion. When religion become so organised and condemns others, I can’t believe in it. I believe in common sense too. It took me a long time to realise that religion is all about being good.

Dapunta Hyang is the first Malay King, and his kingdom Srivijaya was a stronghold of Buddhism. We have come a long way through many different belief systems to arrive at this point in time. The mainstream needs to understand this, it is not all about them or what is right.

The project for the pavilion includes the construction of a ship anchoring in an homage to seafaring peoples Orang Laut people of Southeast Asia. Is this built on historical blueprints or is this a creative translation of Orang Laut engineering?

I am very stubborn to think that the only method is to use string, rattan and beeswax to make the ship. It is a very ancient technique. There are no shortcuts here. The engineering we talk about existed before the discovery of metal. It is not Iron Age. It is still about brick, string, tar and tree as the basis of building. Solid technology.

Portrait of Zainah Binti Makusen, a mak yong performer, Mantang island, Riau, 2016. Photo: Zai Kuning. Image courtesy the artist.

Portrait of Zainah Binti Makusen, a mak yong performer, Mantang island, Riau, 2016. Photo: Zai Kuning. Image courtesy the artist.

Could you tell us what the history of the Orang Laut people means to you? What could it mean to Singapore and the Southeast Asian region?

The Orang Laut are one of the first people in this region. They are still around but they suffer from being discriminated as nomads and animists. The nature which they live in is all gone with commercialism and ‘development’. When you see beach resorts and mines, it means progress but it also means that the Orang Laut die slowly. There is no place they can go without being questioned. They are pariahs in their own land. This is not very different from the story of local peoples all over the world, but it is not made known enough especially for the people in Singapore and Southeast Asia. We have to understand and make such knowledge available for our children as they are our future consciousness. Singapore can be a centre where we create such awareness about Southeast Asian people from food, diet, materials and nature. It is not enough to be Singaporean knowing only materialism.

Performance by Zai Kuning entitled "Loosing oneself to be with it and taken away by it" during Venice International Performance Art Week 2014, Venice. Image courtesy the artist.

Performance by Zai Kuning entitled “Loosing oneself to be with it and taken away by it” during Venice International Performance Art Week 2014, Venice. Image courtesy the artist.

What are the material or artistic challenges you have had to face and overcome during the production process so far?

Material and artistic challenges are always a joy. The most heartbreaking and difficult matter is always caused by and about human lameness.

Rebecca Close

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Related topics: Singaporean artistsbiennalesevents in Venice57th Venice Biennale

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