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Ghost boat sets sail for Venice next year
FOR the past few years, artist Zai Kuning has been creating large, ghostly- looking boat sculptures. Made of rattan, thread and wax - no nails or other types of metal fasteners are used - these skeletons of boats hark back to the ancient voyages and journeys taken by the Orang Laut (literally, "sea people") living in the Malay Archipelago.
Beneath these sculptures, the 52-year-old artist typically leaves a pile of old books that have been dipped in wax, never to be opened again - a metaphor for vanished stories and documents. Taken together, the installations transmit a strong sense of loss, longing and foreboding.
From May 13 to Nov 26, 2017, Zai's poignant installations are poised to be seen by an international audience at the the world's most prestigious art show, the Venice Biennale. Zai will present a large boat sculpture, drawings, photos and audio recordings at the Singapore Pavilion in the 16th century Sale d'Armi building at the Arsenale, a historic complex of shipyards and military barracks.
Zai is working with 43-year-old curator June Yap, who is best known 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 also curated artist Ho Tzu Nyen's show at the 2011 Venice Biennale.
Zai says: "When I created a version of the ship for Palais de Tokyo in Paris last year, I had people coming up to me to talk about the history of Singapore and South-east Asia. Some were aware of the region's basic history, but it's clear that my work tries to take them even earlier into our past - say, about 400 or 500 years back."
Zai and Yap's presentation at Venice Biennale will be titled Dapunta Hyang, a reference to the historical figure of Dapunta Hyang Sri Jayanasa, the first maharaja of the early kingdom of Srivijaya.
Considered the first large state of "world economic stature" in Southeast Asia, the Srivijaya empire 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.
In the next few months, Zai will be travelling to Palembang, Mantang and Jambi, all in Indonesia, to carry out further research into Malay culture, tradition and history in South-east Asia. He hopes to conduct and record audio interviews with the locals that will be used as part of his presentation.
Yap says: "For the Venetian audience, it is the depth of history, background and tradition in Zai's work that will interest them very much. From a visual perspective, Zai's boat will have them coming up close to inspect its construction, because the materials - rattan and thread - are quite poignant and key to the work itself and to the idea of craft. Zai is trying to excavate the history of the region and what it means to us today. So the implications are contemporary even if the references are historical."
Zai and Yap's proposal for the biennale was picked from six entries by the seven-member commissioning panel, co-chaired by Kathy Lai, chief executive of the National Arts Council (NAC), and NUS Museum head Ahmad Mashadi. Other members of the panel were National Gallery Singapore director Eugene Tan; artist Vincent Leow; STPI director Emi Eu; Ute Meta Bauer, founding director of the NTU Centre for Contemporary Art Singapore; and Zarch Collaboratives principal Randy Chan.
Unlike previous presentations by Singapore artists at the Venice Biennale, Zai's works-in-progress will be occasionally displayed in Gillman Barracks to the public over the course of the next eight months before they are shipped to Venice.