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La Biennale di Venezia | Singapore : Zai Kuning Dapunta Hyang: Transmission of Knowledge
A work-in-progress photograph of the bow of the 17 metre-long ship made of rattan, beeswax, and string. Gillman Barracks, Singapore, 2017. Photo courtesy of the artist.

Singapore Pavilion at the Venice Biennale

Zai Kuning
Dapunta Hyang: Transmission of Knowledge

May 13–November 26, 2017


Opening: May 10, 3:45–4:45pm, by Guest-of-Honour Grace Fu, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth, Singapore

Singapore Pavilion at the Venice Biennale
Arsenale – Sale d’Armi
Campo della Tana 2169/F
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Multidisciplinary artist Zai Kuning will represent Singapore at the 57th Venice Biennale. The presentation, Dapunta Hyang: Transmission of Knowledge, is commissioned by the National Arts Council, Singapore (NAC) and will exhibit at the Singapore Pavilion in the Sale d’Armi building at the Arsenale from May 13 to November 26, 2017.

Dapunta Hyang: Transmission of Knowledge uncovers forgotten stories of the orang laut, sea people of the Riau Archipelago, juxtaposed against an artistic re-imagination of the 7th century voyage of Dapunta Hyang Sri Jayanasa through the kingdom of Srivijaya. Central to the presentation is a 17-metre-long ship that traverses the hall, suspended. Made only of rattan, string and beeswax, it appears as if emerging from an aluminum sea, carrying within its hull ghosts of the past, even as it unloads its cargo of sealed books in the present.

In this installation, Zai explores one of the lesser-known narratives of Southeast Asia, which presents Dapunta Hyang as the first Malay king of what was once a powerful empire—a hegemon that exercised immense political, economic and military influence across modern-day Southeast Asia. Yet, despite his pre-eminence in the ancient Malay world, Dapunta Hyang has been forgotten, fading over time with the arrival of Islam and later rulers.

As the first contemporary visual artist to resurrect Dapunta Hyang’s story, Zai’s journey is a culmination of over 20 years of research and discovery. The colossal ship is the fifth such vessel constructed by Zai, and the largest and most intricate to date. The installation commands attention: it is imprinted in the viewer’s mind and forces us to confront this forgotten past.

Since 1999, Zai has built a relationship with the orang laut, also believed to be the first people of Singapore. Their ways of life are entwined with nature, with their ancestral customs and beliefs informed by animism. Through his interactions with them, Zai discovered the performers of mak yong, a pre-Islamic operatic tradition with Hindu-Buddhist roots that was once widespread but is now sustained only by a few remaining masters.

The installation features 30 photographic portraits of living mak yong performers and an audio recording of an old mak yong master, speaking in an old Malay language 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 by a small community that has itself been neglected.

Zai has collaborated with Thai photographer Wichai Juntavaro on this aspect of the work, visiting cities in Thailand and Indonesia to uncover the history, landscape and influence of Dapunta Hyang and the Srivijayan Empire (650 CE–1377 CE).

Through the synthesis of Dapunta Hyang, mak yong and orang laut, Zai raises questions on how knowledge is transmitted and directed across time and space to inform future generations. The juxtaposition of the forgotten Malay king with a dying operatic tradition reminds us that history is not just documentation, but rather it is lived, and often painfully. This journey signifies the need for dialogue on issues of identity, culture and history amongst Malays in Southeast Asia.

Paul Tan, Deputy Chief Executive Officer, NAC, says: “Dapunta Hyang: Transmission of Knowledge is a poignant installation that invites viewers to reflect on our region’s history and identity. We are excited to see Zai’s work take shape at the the 57th Venice Biennale, the premier platform to showcase Singapore’s visual artists to the world. Our eighth participation in Venice 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.”

The Singapore Pavilion will be opened officially on May 10 by Guest-of-Honour Grace Fu, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth, Singapore. An exhibition catalogue will be published featuring essays by art historian T.K. Sabapathy, head of the National University of Singapore (NUS) Museum Ahmad Mashadi, and Professor, Southeast Asian Studies at NUS Dr. John Miksic, among others.

Media enquiries
Mr. Damian Chandler

Brunswick Arts Consulting LLP
T +852 3512 5060 / M +852 9661 7660 /

Ms. Ho Binjin
National Arts Council
T +65 6346 9471 / M +65 8127 6898 /

About National Arts Council
The National Arts Council champions the arts in Singapore. By nurturing creative excellence and supporting broad audience engagement, we want to develop a distinctive global city for the arts. With a nod to tradition and an eye to the future, we cultivate accomplished artists and vibrant companies. Our support for the arts is comprehensive—from grants and partnerships to industry facilitation and arts housing. The Council welcomes greater private and corporate giving to and through the arts so that together we can make the arts an integral part of everyone’s lives. For more information on the Council’s mission and plans, visit

About Zai Kuning
Zai Kuning was born in 1964 in Singapore. Considered one of the most versatile artists working in the region, Zai has pioneered a practice spanning sculpture, installation, painting and drawing, experimental sound and music, video, film, performance art, poetry, dance and theatre.

Dapunta Hyang: Transmission of Knowledge is a culmination of his 20-year encounter with the orang laut (sea people) and other islanders in the Riau Archipelago, as well as recent journeys to Phatthalung town (Thailand), Palembang and Jambi (Indonesia).

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