Zai Kuning to Represent Singapore at 2017 Venice Biennale
By HG Masters
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.