There’s something impossibly magnificent about the way Singaporean artist Zai Kuning’s gigantic skeleton of a ship hangs in 72-13. Entering the exhibition space, an air of the mystical and awe-inspiring emanates forth when witnessing the handwoven beast in person, as the obelisk-like structure towers over you and stretches out and across the entire room. Suspended in mid-air, the ship seems to defy gravity itself as it plays with concepts of weight and bends reality, with multiple rocks hanging from its sides. Books bound in beeswax gather around the ship, suggesting old and forgotten histories, while the mirror on the ground allows one to literally reflect upon the underside of the ship. The longer you look at it, the more there is to be uncovered and analysed, it sheer size alone giving plenty to think about, its bone-like appearance creating the impression of a living, breathing creature.
Having been commissioned for the Singapore Pavilion at the 2017 Venice Biennale, Dapunta Hyang: Transmission of Knowledge makes its way home at last to the place where it all began. Transmission of Knowledge marks the culmination of Zai’s ongoing investigation into Malay history and culture, with a strong focus on forgotten cultures such as the mak yong performers and indigenous orang laut. The Dapunta Hyang series takes its name from the first Malay king of the Srivijaya empire, its form as a ship representing the same vessel he used to journey through Southeast Asia in the 7th century, leading to the birth of a maritime trade hegemony.
In Transmission of Knowledge, beyond the ship, the exhibition also showcases 24 photographs taken by Thai photographer Wichai Juntavaro, portraying portraits of the mak yong performers taken during research trips to Mantang Island, alongside a hand-drawn map depicting the route which the Dapunta Hyang took, as well as voice and ambient recordings from the mak yong master, telling the myth and history of mak yong’s origins in Thailand before finally arriving on Mantang Island. Few mak yong performers continue to exist, due to the art form’s connection to animism and its incompatibility with mainstream beliefs, and its survival questionable.
Over the years, Dapunta Hyang has been presentated all around the world, much like an actual ship traveling the world. The first time it was shown was in 2014, at Ota Fine Arts (who are currently exhibiting a retrospective to coincide with this work) and the Institute of Contemporary Arts, before going on to show at the Esplanade, Palais de Tokyo in Paris, Art Basel in Hong Kong and of course, its fifth and largest iteration at the Venice Biennale.
In a sense, returning to 72-13, the home of Theatreworks truly is a homecoming for the project, as Zai began this journey in 2001 when TheatreWorks offered him a residency that supported his research on the orang laut, supporting his dream with no expected outcome. At the opening held last week, Zai commented on the immense support he’s received from Theatreworks, Ota Fine Arts, the NAC and the various other organisations key to the success and continuation of this project to this day.
The importance of Transmission of Knowledge lies in the breadth of issues it makes comment on, from loss of identity and culture, to forgotten histories and the depth of our roots, providing the full context for understanding Zai’s research into Dapunta Hyang. Running till 13th May, there’s really no substitute for heading down yourself to witness the exhibition in person, striking in its appearance, haunting in its significance and brimming with ghosts of the pasts fighting for a part of its legacy, both in the past and future, with this historic work of staggering beauty.
Dapunta Hyang: Transmission of Knowledge runs till 13th May at 72-13, Mohamed Sultan Road Singapore 239008. Admission is free. For more information and schedules of performances and talks, visit Theatreworks’ website here