The Venice Questionnaire #4 – Zai Kuning

The artist representing Singapore discusses ancient ships and the transmission of knowledge

Zai Kuning. Image: courtesy National Arts Council, Singapore Zai Kuning, installation of “The Fleeting World of Dapunta Hyang”, at Esplanade, Singapore, 2015. Image: courtesy of Esplanade - Theatres on the Bay, Singapore Zai Kuning, work in progress for the Venice Biennale, at Gillman Barracks, Singapore 2017. Image: courtesy the artist

ArtReview sent a questionnaire to the artists and curators of the national pavilions of the 2017 Venice Biennale. Their responses will be published every day in the lead-up to the Venice Biennale opening on 13 May. The Biennale runs until 26 November.

The multi-disciplinary artist Zai Kuning has worked in sculpture, installation, painting and drawing, experimental sound and music, video, film, performance art, dance and theatre. His presentation for the Singapore pavilion is titled Dapunta Hyang: Transmission of Knowledge. The pavilion is in the Arsenale site of the Biennale

What can you tell us about your exhibition plans for Venice?

You could say my presentation for the Venice Biennale started from the mid-90s, when I began to research Malay history and the orang laut (sea people) who once lived as the first people of Singapore. This exploration of my own history has been a lifelong work. Dapunta Hyang: Transmission of Knowledge will be a culmination of decades of research into the forgotten stories of these sea people of the Riau Archipelago and an ancient Malay world.

Through this work, I introduce ‘Lord Dapunta Hyang Jayanasa’, the first Malay King, whose kingdom Srivijaya once stretched across modern-day Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia. The power it exercised over the region is not incomparable to the Greek or Mongolian conquests, but the history of the empire has been buried and forgotten.

In the seventh century, Dapunta Hyang Sri Jayanasa sets out on a voyage with an army of 20,000 men on a sacred journey, called Siddhayatra, through his kingdom. In this presentation of Dapunta Hyang’s story – my fifth ship and largest to date – I began to imagine how his ships were made. How many trees were brought down, and how many craftsmen employed for such a huge voyage? I imagined the cargo they carried; consisting of books, as this journey is also about ‘the transmission of knowledge’. What knowledge is being carried and shared?

The colossal ship is central to the exhibition. 17 metres long, it is the most intricate vessel that I will have constructed to date. It is crafted with very old techniques to hold things together, using only rattan, string and beeswax. Rattan is flexible yet stubborn. It takes time and patience to learn how to tie them together. This skeletal ship is hung, suspended across the hall appearing as if emerging from the sea. It carries within its hull a cargo of sealed books and ghosts of the past.

Through my interaction with the orang laut, I discovered the mak yong, an ancient Malay opera tradition that was once widespread but is now sustained only by a few remaining masters. I collaborated with Wichai Juntavaro to photograph and present 30 portraits of living mak yong performers. These will be hung on a facing wall running parallel to the ship, accompanied by an audio recording of an old mak yong master, speaking in an old Malay language.

The Venice Biennale is a precious chance for me to bring all these components and interests together to create a whole – the huge ship, maps, audio recordings, portraits of a mak yong family who are alive and working hard to revive this old Melayu opera. It is an opportunity for me to share with the audience a world that has been cast in darkness for hundreds of years. The ship is symbolic of that world. Without the ship, there is no Srivijaya; without the ship the transmission of knowledge is impossible.

By recalling Dapunta Hyang’s journey, I want to open up a dialogue on issues of identity, culture and history amongst Malays in Southeast Asia; and to open a gateway for the world to enter this realm. 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.

How is making a show for the Venice Biennale different to preparing a ‘normal’ exhibition? Or another biennial?

I have been given a very precious opportunity by the National Arts Council to present my work at the Venice Biennale. It is incomparable to other shows in terms of the resources and support available. Because of this, there is more at stake. Hence, I’m really pushing myself very hard in this project in order to justify the support I have received. It is the most intricate, demanding, and humbling project I have ever done in my life. However, what remains the same is that I will make my work in any given condition. Even without a budget, I see it as my duty to practice my art in whatever way I can.

There are a huge number of biennial exhibitions across the world nowadays. Do you think the Venice Biennale still has a special status, and why?

The Venice Biennale is one of the oldest and most prestigious contemporary art exhibitions in the world. Of course, among many critical intellectuals, Venice is considered ‘sold-out’ when it comes to contemporary art. This is an elite minority of curators and art critics who can afford to travel the world looking at art. However, for larger populace, Venice remains a special place, not only because of the Biennale but the city itself. Who doesn’t want to go Venice? I believe the Biennale is still an important opportunity for visual artists to showcase our work to an international audience. For most artists in Singapore, the Venice Biennale is the dream platform to showcase their work. It is a great platform for artists to gain exposure. Not just being able to go around viewing the works of other international artists, but to also be able to participate and dialogue with the global arts community.

What does it mean to ‘represent’ your country? Do you find it an honour or is it problematic?

I am very honoured to represent Singapore, especially knowing there are many other artists who are as committed in their art. I do not find it problematic. I do not have a reputation of being diplomatic. I have a film which is banned, and proposals that could not be realised for the Singapore Biennale in 2011 because they were seen to be too controversial or confrontational. The National Arts Council took up the challenge of working with me – I’m known to be a ‘difficult artist’. I am very grateful to have this opportunity to share this history, which I feel should be told so that it can inspire not only Singaporeans, but people around the world. This is one of the most important aspects of the work and effort: to unleash our imagination about ‘who we are’ and ‘what we are’ through installation art.

The Venice audience is a diverse group. Who is most important to you? The artist peers, the gallerists, curators and critics concentrated around the opening, or the general public which visits in the months that follow?

Sorry, I don’t quite understand this question. I do not think there is a single type of audience that is ‘most important'. In general, I see this installation as an opportunity to share with the audience a world that has been cast in darkness for several hundreds of years. What I present is not just about Singapore’s history, but rather it is the history and the living cultures of Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia and Thailand up to Vietnam. This is the Malay world that the world knows very little about.

Did you visit the last Venice Biennale? What’s your earliest or best memory from Venice?

No, I’ve not visited Venice Biennale. My first time in Venice was when I was invited to perform in the Venice International Performance Festival in 2014. I did not really enjoy Venice that time as I was struggling with the cold weather. It was winter. I contracted rheumatism, which was new to me. But I had a great time with the main organisers, Andrea [Pagnes] and Verena [Stenke], dining and talking. I didn’t go out so much but was amused by the buildings above water.

The second time I went to Venice was when we did a site visit last year. It was all about work for three days and there was not much time to really look and think about Venice. But definitely, there are just too many people and tourists to deal with for me as I am an isolated person in daily life.

How does having a pavilion in Venice make a difference to the art scene in your home country?

Having a pavilion and presence in Venice is important to help raise the profile of Singapore artists. It can help to stimulate our local artists’ imagination and ‘hope’ on having an international audience as that is what art work really needs after all. If there is value to show among the locals here, it should have the same value for the world. It helps artists to challenge themselves on how to further ‘improve’ their artistic language and sense of freedom.

You’ll no doubt be very busy, but what else are you looking forward to seeing?

To be honest, I am really thinking about what to do after the Venice Biennale. The current edition has led me to at least two different landscapes with magical stories of their own: Palembang (Indonesia) where the sacred mountain Bukit Seguntang is, and Phattalung (southern Thailand) where Manora dance tradition originated and is still very active. I have obviously been knocking on their doors when I took on Dapunta and mak yong as the heart of my work. Now the doors are opening right in front of my eyes. My next journey has already been written. I am going right in there.