New artistic team for Venice Biennale work

A work-inprogress photograph of the bow of the 17m-long ship, which is the centrepiece of Zai Kuning’s (above) work to be presented at the Singapore Pavilion at the Venice Biennale.
A work-inprogress photograph of the bow of the 17m-long ship, which is the centrepiece of Zai Kuning’s (above) work to be presented at the Singapore Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. PHOTO: ZAI KUNING

Artist Zai Kuning is joined by four others in this year's international art exhibition

A refreshed artistic production team has joined multidisciplinary artist Zai Kuning as Singapore's official project team for the 2017 Venice Biennale.

The names of four members were released yesterday by the National Arts Council (NAC): Ms Tamares Goh, former head of visual arts at The Esplanade and co-curator of the Singapore Biennale 2013; visual artists Hafiz Osman and Lin Shiyun; and Mr Firusaffian Kamal, who is said to be a former art handler.

Ms Goh, producer for the work, and Lin, exhibition manager, were brought in to "augment the artistic production team", says NAC in the statement.

Production assistant Firusaffian and technical manager Hafiz have been supporting the project from the start.

Art historian T.K. Sabapathy, who has been Zai's constant adviser, was also named as a collaborator in the statement.


A work-inprogress photograph of the bow (above) of the 17m-long ship, which is the centrepiece of Zai Kuning’s work to be presented at the Singapore Pavilion at the Venice Biennale. PHOTO: ZAI KUNING

This update comes four months after the original artistic team split in December, when curator June Yap and project manager Neo Kim Seng announced their exits due to differences in operational approaches within the team.

The 57th Venice Biennale takes place this year from May 13 to Nov 26. Zai's work, Dapunta Hyang: Transmission Of Knowledge, will reside in the 250 sq m Singapore Pavilion, which will officially open on May 10.

The work features a 17m-long rattan ship, as well as photographs and audio recordings that explore narratives linked to the orang laut, or sea people of the Riau Archipelago, and also that of an ancient Malay world.

The pavilion is located in the Sale d'Armi building at the Arsenale, a key site of the Venice Biennale.

The council's director for sector development (visual arts), Mr Low Eng Teong, says that since the departure of Ms Yap and Mr Neo, "Zai has been working alongside this team to ensure that the project is on schedule. The art work was freighted and left for Venice in early March".

Zai tells The Straits Times that this work sheds light not only on Singapore's history, but also on the ancient Malay empire which "the world knows very little about", including Indonesia, Malaysia, Thailand and Vietnam.

The work is an artistic re-imagining of the 7th-century voyage of Dapunta Hyang Sri Jayanasa, the first Malay king of the pre-Islamic Srivijaya kingdom. "The ship is symbolic of that world. Without the ship, there is no Srivijaya. Without the ship, the transmission of knowledge is impossible," says Zai.

Dapunta Hyang builds on more than 20 years of his research into the history of this region and its people.

In fact, this is his fifth and largest incarnation of the vessel to date - earlier re-imaginings of the ship have been exhibited in Singapore, Paris and Hong Kong.

The installation also comprises 30 portraits of practitioners of mak yong (an operatic tradition with Hindu-Buddhist roots) whom Zai encountered through his interactions with the orang laut.

There will also be audio recordings of an old mak yong master speaking in an ancient Malay language.

Zai says the Venice Biennale "is an opportunity for me to share with the audience a world that has been cast in darkness for several hundreds of years".

Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu, who will be the guest of honour at the opening of the Singapore Pavilion, said in a statement issued yesterday that she is happy to see Zai's work exhibited at the prestigious international contemporary art exhibition, describing it as "a masterpiece that will truly reflect our identity".

"It will raise our artists' profile beyond our shores and tap into a most important global network to reach new audiences for our Singapore art," she said.

This is Singapore's eighth partici-pation in the Biennale. Previous artists who have represented the country include Charles Lim and Ho Tzu Nyen.

Mr Paul Tan, NAC's deputy chief executive officer, adds that the work "continues the conversations and connections between Singapore artists and the rest of the world, and Singapore's contemporary art practice will benefit and grow from this international dialogue".

A catalogue will also accompany the installation, the first comprehensive book that discusses Zai's work.

It will feature essays by Sabapathy as well as Mr Ahmad Mashadi, head of National University of Singapore (NUS) Museum, and Dr John Miksic, NUS professor for South-east Asian studies.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 04, 2017, with the headline 'New artistic team for Venice Biennale work'. Print Edition | Subscribe