Zai Kuning's ship installation for Venice Biennale is biggest to date

Zai Kuning's ship installation for Venice Biennale is biggest to date
A work in progress, this picture shows of the bow of the 17m-long ship made of rattan, beeswax, and string. It is the centre piece of artist Zai Kuning's presentation at the Singapore Pavilion at the 57th Venice Biennale. Photo: Courtesy of Zai Kuning
The artist's main piece for the Biennale is a 17m-long ship that recalls a long-forgotten king, while other works rely on his research of the Orang Laut people
Published: 8:31 AM, March 18, 2017
Updated: 3:06 PM, March 21, 2017

SINGAPORE — Images of works from multidisciplinary artist Zai Kuning, who will represent Singapore at the 57th Venice Biennale in May, have been released by the National Arts Council (NAC).

The central piece in the presentation is a 17-m-long ship  made of rattan, string and beeswax.

It will span the hall where it will be displayed at the Singapore Pavilion in the Sale d’Armi building at the Arsenale in Venice. The installation, which will be unveiled at the Singapore Pavilion's opening on May 10, will hang suspended, as if emerging from the sea. The idea is to evoke memories of the past, according to a statement from the NAC.

The installation is Zai's re-imagining of the voyage of Dapunta Hyang Sri Jayanasa, a long-forgotten king who reigned over the kingdom of Srivijaya in the 7th century. The entire presentation relies on Zai's research of the Orang Laut, the nomadic people living on the coastlines and waterways of Riau.

Called Dapunta Hyang: Transmission of Knowledge, the presentation aims to uncover forgotten stories of the king, whose influence spanned to the 14th century.

The ship is the fifth such piece that Zai, 52, has constructed. The multi-disciplinary artist has been working on the installation - the most intricate to date - in a studio at Gillman Barracks.

Zai has studied the Orang Laut, believed to be the first people of Singapore, since 1999. In his interactions, he has discovered the performers of mak yong, a pre-Islamic operatic tradition with Hindu-Buddhist roots that was once widespread but is now sustained only by a few remaining masters.   

The presentation also features 30 photographic portraits of living mak yong performers, said the NAC press statement. An audio recording of a mak yong master plays on loop in the background.

(Above: Zainah Binti Makusen, a mak yong performer. Photo: Zai Kuning)

Zai has collaborated with Thai photographer Wichai Juntavaro on this aspect of the work, visiting Phatthalung and Surat Thani in Thailand, as well as the once vibrant trading cities of Palembang and Jambi in Indonesia.

Zai Kuning on a sampan (boat) to MantangIsland Riau 2016 Photo courtesy of Wichai Juntavaro

(Above: Zai Kuning on a sampan boat to Mantang Island last year. Photo: Wichai Juntavaro)

On their travels, they came across ancient relics believed to date back to Srivijaya, including a recurring motif of a leaf-shaped boat, engraved on the tombs of royalties at Palembang’s Bukit Seguntang.

“Relics or remains surviving from the Srivijayan world helped me imagine the old Malay world. My interpretations concerning Srivijaya are personal, inspired by my own dreams, life experiences and imagination, especially about how they may have lived in the seventh century," Zai said in the statement.

"I am not a researcher, nor academic nor historian. I am an artist and a storyteller.”

(Above: Inspired by tombstones found on a sacred hill in Palembang, Kuning has carved boat-shaped motifs into books sealed in besswax. Photo: Ken Cheong)

 Paul Tan, deputy chief executive officer, National Arts Council, said that the presentation "is a poignant installation that invites viewers to reflect on our region’s history and identity".

"We are excited to see Zai’s work take shape at the Venice Biennale," he added.

The Singapore Pavilion will be opened officially on May 10, and will run until Nov 26. The Singapore Pavilion is commissioned by the NAC and supported by the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth.