Multidisciplinary artist Zai Kuning represents Singapore at the Venice Biennale 2017 with Dapunta Hyang: Transmission of Knowledge, a work that resurrects, reimagines and weaves together the forgotten histories of the first Malay king, a dying pre-Islamic operatic tradition in the Riau archipelago, and the first people of Singapore. The work exhibits at the Singapore Pavilion in the Arsenale from 13 May to 26 November 2017.
A 17 metre-long ship traverses the hall, suspended. As if emerging from an aluminium sea, it unloads hundreds of books sealed in beeswax. This is the vessel steered by the first Malay king, Dapunta Hyang Sri Jayanasa of the 7th- century Srivijayan Empire in Southeast Asia, on a Siddhayatra (Sanskrit for “accomplished sacred expedition”) to map his lands. His empire was a powerful one: a hegemon that exercised immense political, economic and military influence, stretching across modern-day Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia.
Yet despite his pre-eminence in the ancient Malay world, Dapunta Hyang is forgotten, his narrative buried with the arrival of Islam and later rulers like Parameswara.
Zai Kuning is the first artist to resurrect Dapunta Hyang’s story, calling forth the grandeur and sheer force of a maritime world cast in darkness for centuries. The colossal ship made of rattan, string, and wax carries within its hull ghosts of the past, even as it unloads its sealed books in the present. The image necessitates attention; it imprints in the viewer’s mind. One cannot forget this distant past anymore.
On a facing wall running parallel to the ship, sit photographic portraits of living mak yong performers from Mantang island, in the Riau Archipelago. A pre-Islamic operatic tradition among fishermen that was once widespread across Dapunta Hyang’s lands, mak yong now exists precariously, sustained by a few remaining masters. In the background, one hears an aural recording: the faint voice of an old master speaking a language few still understand.
Why this work?
Since 2001, Zai has built a relationship with the orang laut (sea people) of the Riau Archipelago. The orang laut are believed to be the first people of Singapore, whose ways of life are entwined with nature, and their beliefs informed by animism. Their ancestral customs, practices and beliefs were once widespread, but are now deemed unacceptable to the orthodox Muslim world; them as a people marginalized and discriminated against. Through his interactions with the orang laut, Zai got to know of and observed similar struggles faced by mak yong and its performers, as the art is rooted in both animist and Hindu beliefs.
Through the synthesis of Dapunta Hyang and mak yong, Zai Kuning communicates the urgent need to resurface questions on identity, culture and history amongst Malays in Southeast Asia. How, he asks, has knowledge been transmitted, manipulated and directed across time and space to inform us about who we are?
The invocation of the first Malay king — Dapunta Hyang Sri Jayanasa — is necessary for tracing our consciousness back, imaginatively and inquisitively, so as to inspect our present reality with a renewed perspective. The juxtaposition of the first (and forgotten) Malay king with a dying operatic tradition sustained by a marginalized few, reminds us that history is not just documentation but it is lived, often painfully.
“From here an urge or inspiration came: I should be making a work talking about the Srivijayan empire and its first King, through an image of a ship which had been dug from the earth. It is ambitious, and I am not a historian. But I know through many dreams that I have to open the box, to let audiences people know of this very first King in Malay history, a history kept in the dark, except in Palembang (Indonesia) itself. It is similar to my involvement with the orang laut and mak yong. Their histories, stories and living conditions are treated discriminatively, to the point of being inhumane. It is a life mission, rather than an art project.”
Dapunta Hyang and Srivijaya: a retracing, resurrection and reimagination
For this edition of the work, expeditions were made to Phatthalung town and Surat Thani (Thailand), as well as the once-vibrant trading-cities of Palembang and Jambi (Indonesia), to uncover the history, landscape and influence of Dapunta Hyang and his Srivijayan Empire. On these travels, they documented Buddhist stupas with similar architectural designs across the region. Significantly for Zai, he found pre-islamic motifs used in ancient shrines at Palembang’s Bukit Seguntang, a sacred hill home to relics believed to date back to the Srivijayan Empire. One recurring motif engraved on the tombs of royalties is a leaf-shaped boat, a motif unique to that period and not seen in later graves or tombstones. All these relics suggest a world that was experiencing a flux with the exchange of ideas and cultures, before the “Islamization” of the Arab world.
Zai elaborates: “Relics or remains surviving from the Srivijayan world helped me begin to imagine the old Malay world. My interpretations concerning Srivijaya are personal interpretations, fired by my imagination for many things, especially how they may have lived in the 7th century, and are also inspired by my own dreams and life experiences. I am not an expert: a historian or researcher or academic. I am an artist and a storyteller.”
Dapunta Hyang’s Siddhayarta ship
The ship was pivotal for Dapunta Hyang to map his lands on a journey known as Siddhayatra (Sanskrit for “accomplished sacred expedition”). Without the ship, the Srivijayan empire would not have existed; without the ship, it would have been impossible to spread knowledge across such a vast geography.
The rattan, string and wax ship in “Dapunta Hyang: Transmission of Knowledge” is the fifth such vessel constructed by Zai, and the most complex and intricate to date.
The ship’s skeletal frame echoes a human ribcage, its bent “arms” branching out from a central spine. Zai chose rattan — an old-world climbing palm characterised by its soft and flexible woody stem — for its tenacity, ubiquity, and endemism in Southeast Asia. “One can use rattan as a rope or as a stick,” Zai explains. “While its earlier use was in furniture, it has also gained notoriety for its use as a cane to discipline disobedient children. As a child, the rattan cane was never far from me. It is, for me, a symbol of power and threat.” Natural beeswax is a medium the artist has been using since 1997, but is especially poignant in this work, as beeswax was used for embalming in the ancient world. The red string that fuses everything together not only harks back to old binding techniques, but also symbolizes the indelible bloodline coursing through all descendants of Dapunta Hyang.
The first presentation of the vessel was in an installation titled Dapunta Mapping the Melayu, at Ota Fine Arts (Singapore) in 2014. That piece is now part of the permanent collection at the Singapore Art Museum. Further variations of the ship were presented at the Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore (2014), Esplanade in Singapore (2015), Hong Kong Art Basel (2015), and Palais de Tokyo in Paris (2015).
Mak yong: an ancestral tradition, lost with time
mak yong practitioners are living proof of an ancient Malay world that held very different customs, practices and beliefs. An operatic tradition with animist and Hindu roots that is performed by fishermen, it is facing erasure due to financial difficulty, the loss of an audience, and marginalization of the islanders.
Over 13 years, Zai has witnessed the struggles of a mak yong troupe in Mantang island near Tanjung Pinang, Indonesia, fighting to sustain their art without letting it devolve into tokenistic cultural showcases meant for tourists. Zai has invited the troupe several times to perform on their home island and on neighbouring islands. A recent glimmer of hope: the troupe’s younger generation of performers took the initiative to stage the opera on New Year’s eve 2016.
Dapunta Hyang: Transmission of Knowledge features 30 photographic portraits of the performers; some retired, some new to the troupe. An audio recording of the old mak yong master, Pak Abdul Gani, speaking in the old Malay language plays faintly on loop in the background. The fragility of these elements is a poignant reminder — yet another ancient tradition is on the verge of disappearance; presently safeguarded (but only barely) by a small community, that has itself been neglected and discriminated.
Please visit our blog for more details on the work process.