Work centred on Malay identity to represent Singapore at Venice Biennale

Artist Zai Kuning and curator June Yap, artistic team for Singapore Pavilion Venice Biennale 2017. — Handout via TODAY
Artist Zai Kuning and curator June Yap, artistic team for Singapore Pavilion Venice Biennale 2017. — Handout via TODAY

SINGAPORE, Aug 17 — Over 30 years of trying to find his focus through experimenting with multidisciplinary art forms, Singapore contemporary artist Zai Kuning finally focused his work on Malay culture and history in South-east Asia. His decision paid off — he is finally commissioned to represent Singapore at the Venice Biennale, after his two works were not physically realised for previous Singapore Biennale editions.

The National Arts Council (NAC) announced today that Kuning, 52, along with curator and art historian June Yap, will be representing Singapore at the 2017 Venice Biennale, which will run from May 13 to November 26 next year. This is based on a selection by the Singapore Pavilion Commissioning Panel chaired by NAC’s chief executive officer Kathy Lai and Ahmad Mashadi, head of NUS Museum, from six submitted proposals.

“The commissioning panel felt that Zai’s proposal had the scale and depth because he has been working on it over a decade. It also has the potential to bring to fruition the whole research he has undertaken the last few years and the kind of presentation that will probably speak to an international audience,” shared Low Eng Teong, director of NAC’s sector development for visuals arts.

In 2006, Kuning’s proposed work Talk To Me for the Singapore Biennale, a series of no-holds-barred interviews with some of the country’s prominent names in the arts and culture scene, was not commissioned. For the Singapore Biennale 2011, he proposed to close the music venue Timbre, which occupies the garden at The Substation, for a period of two months so as to restore the garden as a space open to all artists. Unfortunately, due to high costs for the ambitious work, it could only be found in the Biennale catalogue as an email correspondence between him and Singapore Biennale Artistic Director Matthew Ngui.

Regarding how this proposed work for Venice Biennale relates to the unrealised Singapore Biennale works, Kuning brushes aside the comparison. “This is a different story (from the other works)... this focuses on Malay history,” he said, adding that his pieces are always different from each other. “For almost 20 years, I have been making works related to Malay history, but not every work is the same.”

The former first president of The Artists Village (TAV), an artist collective founded by Tang Da Wu in Singapore, Kuning admitted that he is clearer about his artistic path now. “You have to have your own path. If there is a festival that does not fit me, I will not participate in it. It means less jobs but it is better.”

Their proposal, Dapunta Hyang, is a culmination of over 20 years of Kuning’s research, as part of a broader inquiry on Malay identity that includes him having spent more than a decade with and creating work on the Orang Laut (sea gypsies) — the pre-nation and pre-colonial inhabitants of both island and sea in the region.

One of the pieces in Dapunta Hyang, which will be representing Singapore at the 2017 Venice Biennale. — Handout via TODAY
One of the pieces in Dapunta Hyang, which will be representing Singapore at the 2017 Venice Biennale. — Handout via TODAY

The exhibition for Venice Biennale extends a series produced in recent years that takes as its vantage point Dapunta Hyang Sri Jayanasa, the first Maharaja of the early kingdom of Śrīvijaya. Considered the first large state of ‘world economic stature’ of its time in South-east Asia, the empire of Śrīvijaya stood at the crossroads of the maritime route between China and India, where merchant vessels plying their trade brought about an exchange of cultural influences, religious ideas, and goods. The success and influence of the empire is captured within Kuning’s work in a symbol of voyage central to the exhibition.

Lai pointed out that Kuning’s proposal “stood out strongly as it spotlights forgotten stories of a people whose culture influenced what we recognise as ‘South-east Asian’ today”.

She added: “The uncovering of forgotten histories will, I believe, strike a chord with the international audience at the Venice Biennale.”

Kuning was the one who roped in Yap, who is most recognised for curating No Country: Contemporary Art for South and South-east Asia, as part of the Guggenheim UBS MAP Global Art Initiative (New York, Hong Kong and Singapore) from 2012 to 2014.

Yap said she had a longstanding relationship with the artist, having written essays and exhibition texts for him previously and following his work through years. “Important for me is having a connection with the artist and their artistic practice. With that connection, that relationship, I get to understand better and articulate their practice in a way that is, at once, an interpretation and also close to what they are doing.”

This will be the first-time she is working together with Kuning to produce a commissioned work. “We’re very much looking forward to the final presentation in Venice and we are both very excited about.” She added.

Yap and Kuning will be working on the installation at the studio space located at Gilman Barracks Block 9 #02-02. Singapore audiences will have the opportunity to preview the work in progress and interact with the artist at the space before it leaves for Venice Biennale. — TODAY

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