The National Arts Council (NAC) announced the appointment of Singapore multidisciplinary artist, Zai Kuning, and curator and art historian, June Yap, as the artistic team representing Singapore at the 2017 Venice Biennale from 13 May to 26 November 2017. Their proposal, Dapunta Hyang, is a culmination of over 20 years of Zai’s research on Malay culture and history in Southeast Asia, as 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.
The exhibition for the Biennale extends a series produced in recent years that takes as its vantage point Dapunta Hyang Sri Jayanasa, the first Maharaja of the early kingdom of Śrīvijaya. Considered the first large state of ‘world economic stature’ of its time in Southeast Asia, the empire of Śrīvijaya stood at the crossroads of the maritime route between China and India, where merchant vessels plying their trade brought about an exchange of cultural influences, religious ideas, and goods. The success and influence of the empire is captured within Zai’s work in a symbol of voyage central to the exhibition.
Besides the history of the Śrīvijaya empire, Dapunta Hyang also points to the history of the Malay language and the establishment of Old Malay as the region’s lingua franca. The transmission and spread of the Malay language is a subject that has also surfaced in Zai’s work on the Orang Laut and his documentation of what remains of the Mak Yong opera in Riau, in that the Mak Yong may be traced to the Pattani kingdom via its Pattani-Kelantan Malay dialect. Having been immersed in Ghazal music and Zapin dance performance, and appreciating the livelihoods and cultures of the Riau islands from a young age, Zai considers the Mak Yong opera as a crucial and much neglected part of the region’s cultural history and relationships. Where artefact may not survive the passage of time, in language we find the traces of cultural development and transmission, in this instance also calling to mind Austronesian connections.
As the only Singaporean artist exploring our collective regional history through the pre-Islamic Śrīvijaya era, Zai explains, “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. As an aesthetic project, however, 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.”
Ms. Kathy Lai, CEO of NAC and Co-Chair of the Commissioning Panel, adds, “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. Zai’s proposal stood out strongly as it spotlights forgotten stories of a people whose culture influenced what we recognise as ‘Southeast Asian’ today. The uncovering of forgotten histories will, I believe, strike a chord with the international audience at the Venice Biennale.”
Continuing from Zai’s series of installations that were 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), Dapunta Hyang will be his most complex and intricate installation to date. Audiences in Singapore will have the opportunity to preview the work in progress and interact with Zai at the studio space in Gillman Barracks, before it leaves for the Venice Biennale.