Malay cultural past comes alive at Venice Biennale

The Singapore Pavilion at the 57th Venice Biennale features a 17-metre ship made of rattan, string and wax by artist Zai Kuning. Titled Dapunta Hyang: Transmission Of Knowledge, it references the pre-colonial history of South-east Asia.
Dapunta Hyang: Transmission Of Knowledge by Singaporean multidisciplinary artist Zai Kuning. These books encased in wax represent the rich history of the Srivijayan empire that existed from the seventh to 13th century.
Dapunta Hyang: Transmission Of Knowledge by Singaporean multidisciplinary artist Zai Kuning. These books encased in wax represent the rich history of the Srivijayan empire that existed from the seventh to 13th century.ST PHOTO: NABILAH SAID

Orang laut is part of Singapore artist Zai Kuning's massive installation at the Singapore Pavilion at the Venice Biennale

Forgotten histories and near- extinct cultures are the focus of this year's Singapore Pavilion at the 57th Venice Biennale.

The orang laut (sea gypsies) of the Riau Archipelago, mak yong (a traditional South-east Asian dance drama) and an ancient Malay language are part of the massive installation by Singapore multi-disciplinary artist Zai Kuning, 53.

The work, titled Dapunta Hyang: Transmission Of Knowledge, is named after the first Malay king of the seventh-century Srivijayan empire, Dapunta Hyang Sri Jayanasa.

The centrepiece of the work is a gigantic 17m-long ship made only of rattan, string and wax.

It will open to the public from tomorrow to Nov 26. This is the eighth time Singapore is participating in the prestigious international contemporary art exhibition.

The Singapore Pavilion was officially launched by Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu in Venice, Italy, on Wednesday.

Ms Fu called the work a "masterpiece" and thanked Zai and his team for "helping to bring ancient Malay cultural history to life through this stellar work".

At the launch, Zai played a Korean changgu drum, while his collaborators for the work circled the massive installation.

This is similar to a type of ritual performed by the urak lawoi, the sea people of Thailand, in which they build a boat and ceremonially launch it off towards a sacred mountain in Malaysia, as a symbol of getting rid of bad fortune.

Zai earlier told The Straits Times that he does not "necessarily represent Singapore" with this work.

He says: "I represent the South- east Asian spirit who wants to connect with everybody. It's not about race. We cannot just talk about race."

The Singapore Pavilion is located at the Arsenale, a complex of former armories and shipyards, which is now a key site of the Biennale. Zai's ship, his fifth and largest iteration, took almost three weeks to build on-site at the Singapore Pavilion in Venice.

The installation includes 31 black-and-white portraits of mak yong practitioners, whom Zai met on Mantang Island in Indonesia during his research and travels.

There is also a faint audio recording of a mak yong master speaking in an ancient Malay language.

The work is a culmination of nearly two decades of research by Zai on the history and people of the Riau Archipelago.

Mr Paul Tan, deputy chief executive of the National Arts Council, which commissioned the Singapore Pavilion, told The Straits Times that Zai's work "uncovers a rich and largely untold narrative of our cultural heritage".

"It contextualises Singapore with respect to our South-east Asian neighbours, beyond the legacies of colonialism, and reminds us of the complexity of our cultural identity."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 12, 2017, with the headline 'Malay cultural past comes alive at Biennale'. Print Edition | Subscribe