Singapore artist's ship for Venice Biennale drops anchor at home

Artist Zai Kuning's Dapunta Hyang: Transmission Of Knowledge will be on display from April 12 to May 13 at 72-13 Mohamed Sultan Road.
Artist Zai Kuning's Dapunta Hyang: Transmission Of Knowledge will be on display from April 12 to May 13 at 72-13 Mohamed Sultan Road.PHOTO: NATIONAL ARTS COUNCIL

The 17m-long skeletal ship built by artist Zai Kuning for Singapore's pavilion in the Venice Biennale last year will drop anchor at 72-13 Mohamed Sultan Road next month.

Dapunta Hyang: Transmission Of Knowledge will be on display from April 12 to May 13, from noon to 7pm Tuesdays to Sundays, at the space occupied by arts group TheatreWorks. The exhibition is closed on Mondays.

It is a homecoming in several ways for the work, which pays tribute to the ancient Srivijayan Empire and which arises from two decades of Zai's research into the history of the Riau Archipelago and the seafaring people known as the orang laut. Zai, 54, began this research under a 2001 residency supported by TheatreWorks.

At the time, Zai had recently dissolved his physical theatre group Metabolic Theatre Laboratory and was fascinated by the nomadic sea people who were the first inhabitants of Singapore. Zai himself is a descendant of a different ethnic group, the Bugis people, and his artistic practice includes uncovering fading or forgotten traditions and histories of the Malays.

Dapunta Hyang: Transmission Of Knowledge is a 17m-long, 4m-high skeleton of a sailing vessel, imagined by Zai as the ship of Dapunta Hyang Sri Jayanasa, believed to be the first ruler of the Malay kingdom in the 7th century. The ship is suspended from the ceiling and is flanked by hundreds of books sealed in beeswax, representing untold and forgotten history. The exhibition in Venice also included Zai's research into an ancient Malay art form known as Mak Yong opera.

The upcoming exhibition at Mohamed Sultan Road is supported by the National Arts Council and the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth. There will be weekly guided tours, live performances by Zai and collaborating musician Mike Cooper, talks by archaeologist John N. Miksic and art historian T.K. Sabapathy, as well as the screening of a new film about Zai's research.

In a press statement released by the arts council, Zai said that the managing director of TheatreWorks, Tay Tong, was at the opening of the Singapore Pavilion at last year's Biennale and was the first to persuade the artist to bring the work back to Singapore. He added: "I am happy that many Singaporeans will now have an opportunity to see and gain from it. Now with some pressure and pleasure, we will install the ship again and have audiences in this region see the work and talk about our collective history.

"I sincerely hope that we take a more serious attitude to our knowledge of the past, so that we are better informed in our understanding of the present. Thus the title of the work, Dapunta Hyang: Transmission Of Knowledge."

The arts council's deputy chief executive Paul Tan says: "Dapunta Hyang, a work nearly two decades in the making, has unfolded the rich and largely untold histories of Singapore and South-east Asia among international audiences. Now that Zai's journey has come full circle and returned home to where it all started at TheatreWorks, we encourage Singaporeans to visit the exhibition - one that is critical to our understanding of the region we are in, even while inviting reflections on the complexity of our cultural identity."

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