Singapore's team for Venice Biennale adds 4 new members

Multidisciplinary artist Zai Kuning was appointed last year as Singapore's official representative for the 57th Venice Biennale. PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - A refreshed artistic production team joins multidisciplinary artist Zai Kuning as Singapore's official project team at the 2017 Venice Biennale.

The names of four members were released on Monday (April 3) 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 advisor, was also named as a collaborator in the statement.

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 initial artistic team split in December after curator June Yap and project manager Neo Kim Seng announced their exits due to differences in operational approaches within the team.

The unfinished bow of a 17m-long ship made of rattan, beeswax, and string. It will be the centre piece of the work to be presented at the Singapore Pavilion at the 57th Venice Biennale. PHOTO: ZAI KUNING

This was barely five months after NAC first announced Zai's appointment as Singapore's official representative for the 57th Venice Biennale, which takes place from May 13 to Nov 26 this year.

"Since then, 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," says the council's director for sector development (visual arts) Low Eng Teong.

The work will reside in the 250 sq m Singapore Pavilion, which will officially open on May 10 in Venice with Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Grace Fu, as guest of honour. The pavilion is located in the Sale d'Armi building at the Arsenale, a key site of the Venice Biennale.

Ms Fu says in a statement issued today 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 says.

This is Singapore's eighth participation in the Biennale. Previous artists who have represented Singapore 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."

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

The work is an artistic re-imagining of the seventh 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 Zai's 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 reimaginings of the ship have been exhibited in Singapore, as well as 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.

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", he says.

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

It will feature essays by art historian T.K. Sabapathy; head of NUS Museum Ahmad Mashadi; and National University of Singapore's professor for South-east Asian Studies Dr John Miksic.

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