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  • Aug 17, 2016

Zai Kuning to Represent Singapore at 2017 Venice Biennale

Artist ZAI KUNING and curator JUNE YAP, the artistic team for Singapore Pavilion at Venice Biennale 2017. Courtesy National Arts Council, Singapore.

On August 17, the National Arts Council (NAC) of Singapore announced that multidisciplinary artist Zai Kuning would represent the city-state at the 2017 edition of the Venice Biennale. Curator and art historian June Yap was named the pavilion’s curator. The exhibition will be in Singapore’s space on the first floor of the Sale d’Armi and will open to the public on May 13, 2017.

With a large sculpture of a ship anchoring the pavilion, the project proposed by Zai and Yap builds on 20-plus years of Zai’s research into Malay culture, specifically the nomadic, seafaring Orang Laut people of southeast Asia, who preceded the colonial and national eras. The 2017 Singapore Pavilion’s title, “Dapunta Hyang,” refers to the first Maharaja of the Buddhist kingdom of Śrīvijaya on the island of Java that existed between the 8th and 12th centuries CE and served as crucial trading link between East Asia and the South Asian subcontinent. It was also the pre-Islamic kingdom that established Malay as the language of the region.


Born in 1964 in Singapore, Zai studied ceramic sculpture at Lasalle College of the Arts, graduating in 1989, after which he studied literature and rituals with Sultan Alisjahbana, in Bali. Upon his return to Singapore in 1990, Zai became involved in The Artist Village (TAV), an artist collective established by Tang Da Wu, which included artists such as Amanda Heng, Lee Wen and Vincent Leow, who introduced Zai to performance art. The human body, particularly his concept of the “tortured body” would guide Zai’s works in the 1990s, such as his sculpture The Body that was included in the 2nd Asia-Pacific Triennial in 1996, where he also did a dance-like performance of antic gestures and strained poses. 

June Yap was the curator of the Singapore Pavilion at the 2011 Venice Biennale, where Ho Tzu Nyen screened his film installation Cloud of Unknowing (2011). She was also the Guggenheim UBS MAP curator for South and Southeast Asia from 2012 to 2014. Kathy Lai, CEO of NAC and co-chair of the commissioning panel, said: “Zai’s proposal stood out strongly as it spotlights forgotten stories of a people whose culture influenced what we recognize as ‘Southeast Asian’ today.”

The pavilion continues a string of recent exhibitions by Zai exploring regional sea-faring nomadic culture and Malay history: at Ota Fine Arts in Gillman Barracks (2014) and the Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore (2014) Esplanade – Theatres on the Bay (2015), Art Basel Hong Kong (2015) and Palais de Tokyo (Paris, 2015). Zai said about pavilion: “As an aesthetic project, however, it is not a presentation of history in material and object, or as ideology and in politics. Rather it is about a sense of fellowship and solidarity that arises from knowing who we are. I am keen to have audiences spend time reflecting upon the elements the work combines: of craft in the sculpture of the ship, the subject of knowledge as embodied in the waxed books, the portraits of islanders and Mak Yong, and the voice of the Mak Yong master who speaks in a language rarely heard now in Singapore and Malaysia, even Indonesia.” 

HG Masters is editor at large of ArtAsiaPacific.