In 1817 Stamford Raffles published his book ‘The History of Java’, one of the earliest attempts in English to document the culture and society of the Malay Archipelago. Raffles’ intention was to promote the idea that in the distant past a great lost pre-Islamic civilisation had bound together the disparate and warring nations of the region, one that could be revived under the guardianship of the British Empire. The book was a flop and Britain handed Java over to the Dutch.
Zai Kuning’s installation attempts to connect to this lost civilisation fable. The boat looks like one of the museum displays of a beached Viking long boat funeral ship but stripped back to just a frame of open ribs it also looks like a giant fossilised skeleton. The bulbous and undulating lines recall something organic like a cocoon. Built up of rattan tied together with string it’s clearly a laborious hand-crafted effort on the part of the artist, a stark contrast with the slick production of the other ship installation that dominates Venice this year – Damien Hirst’s ‘Treasures from the Wreck of the Unbelievable’. Stones hanging from ropes around the boat and two piles of books covered in beeswax give the impression that the whole scene is the recreation of an archaeological excavation.
The boat sculpture fits within of a group of works by South East Asian artists that evoke ideas of a fantastical archaeology or the recreation of an anthropological display. I am reminded of Danh Vō who occupied the Danish Pavilion in 2015 and the work of Dinh Q. Lê. The boat is the largest of a series by the artist and as with Charles Lim’s ‘Sea State’ project that represented Singapore in Venice in 2015 the presentation here marks the culmination of an extended project for the artist. Kuning began twenty years ago exploring the islands around Singapore for traces of the orang laut or ‘Sea People’ who were the first inhabitants of the region.
The boat is huge. Suspended in the gallery it is one of the largest single works in the Biennale so you have to admire Kuning’s commitment in making the piece and the organisation to bring the work into the space. Next to the boat is a hand drawn map that provides some background to the work. The boat represents part of the fleet of the ancient king Dapunta Hyang who created the Srivijaya Empire that spread through the archipelago linking sites now divided between Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. The Empire lasted for over 1000 years but left few traces. The narrative also proposes an alternative foundation point for Singapore pre-dating the moment Raffles arrived in 1819.
Along one wall of the gallery arranged on a display shelf, again recalling a museum display, is a series of black and white portrait photographs by Wichia Juntavaro of people from Mantang Island that, according to the captions, are performers of Mak Yong, a type of traditional Malay operatic performance that dates back to the Srivijaya Empire. Mak Yong is now a disappearing art form, presumably as with other indigenous art forms in South East Asia that are rooted in community participation, it is the victim of the social flux of the region resulting from economic development. The connections between Mak Yong, the photographs and the boat are not clear and they appear a bit of an afterthought. At the opening Kuning led a performance around the ship but I’m unclear if this connected to Mak Kong or not. This lack of clarity is a shame as Christine Marcel’s main curated section of the Arsenale includes multiple works featuring or involving indigenous peoples and the use of performance in the national pavilions has been one of the talking points of the Biennale.
Kuning’s romanticism of Dapunta Hyang is perplexing, it appeals to a desire for an expansive transnationalism that is at odds with the current political realities of the region. It brings to mind W.B. Yeats’ early fantasies of an Ireland inhabited solely by Fenian heroes and nymphs. For a work tackling the subject of identity in contemporary Singapore I am far more convinced by Erika Tan’s work that is included in the Diaspora Pavilion in Venice this year. Kuning’s boat remains, though, a magnificent memorial to a missing chapter of the civilisation of the Malayan Archipelago.