Forgotten histories and near-extinct cultures are the focus of this year’s Singapore Pavilion at the 57th Venice Biennale in Italy.

The orang laut (sea gypsies) of the Riau Archipelago, mak yong (a traditional South-East Asian dance drama) and an ancient Malay language are part of the massive installation by Singapore multi-disciplinary artist Zai Kuning, 53.

The work, titled Dapunta Hyang: Transmission Of Knowledge, is named after the first Malay king of the seventh-century Srivijayan empire, Dapunta Hyang Sri Jayanasa.

The centrepiece of the work is a gigantic 17m-long ship made only of rattan, string and wax.

It is on show at the Venice Biennale until Nov 26. This is the eighth time Singapore is participating in the prestigious international contemporary art exhibition.

The 57th edition of the Venice Biennale, opened last Saturday with a dizzying 86 nations represented and 23 collateral events.

The Singapore Pavilion was officially launched by Singapore’s Minister for Culture, Community And Youth Grace Fu in Venice on May 10.

Fu called the work a “masterpiece” and thanked Zai and his team for “helping to bring ancient Malay cultural history to life through this stellar work”.

At the launch, Zai played a Korean changgu drum, while his collaborators for the work circled the massive installation.

This is similar to a type of ritual performed by the urak lawoi, the sea people of Thailand, in which they build a boat and ceremonially launch it towards a sacred mountain in Malaysia as a symbol of getting rid of bad fortune.

Zai earlier said that he does not “necessarily represent Singapore” with this work.

zai kuning

Zai’s installation Dapunta Hyang: Transmission Of Knowledge represents the rich history of the Srivijayan empire, which spanned an area that included present-day Singapore and Indonesia, all the way up to Vietnam, and lasted from the seventh to the 13th century. Photo: Reuters

He says: “I represent the South-East Asian spirit who wants to connect with everybody. It’s not about race. We cannot just talk about race.”

The Singapore Pavilion is located at the Arsenale, a complex of former armouries and shipyards which is now a key site of the Biennale. Zai’s ship, his fifth and largest iteration, took almost three weeks to build on-site at the pavilion.

The installation includes 31 black-and-white portraits of mak yong practitioners, whom Zai met on Mantang Island in Indonesia during his research and travels.

There is also a faint audio recording of a mak yong master speaking in an ancient Malay language.

Examples of words that are different from the Malay language spoken in Singapore are “aok” and “jak”, instead of “ya” and “tidak”, for “yes” and “no”.

To Zai, these are forms of living culture that should be preserved, and he does not intend to stop here.

In fact, he has already started research into the menora, a type of Thai dance-drama believed to be the origins of mak yong.

“I am looking for evidence of living culture that is still around. These are not relics. I hope that people can start to remember their history that they have taken for granted.”

The work is a culmination of nearly two decades of research by Zai on the history and people of the Riau Archipelago.

Paul Tan, deputy chief executive of Singapore’s National Arts Council, which commissioned the Singapore Pavilion, said that Zai’s work “uncovers a rich and largely untold narrative of our cultural heritage”.

“It contextualises Singapore with respect to our South-East Asian neighbours, beyond the legacies of colonialism, and reminds us of the complexity of our cultural identity.” – The Straits Times/Asia News Network/Nabilah Said