Dapunta Hyang: Transmission of Knowledge. Installation, 2018. Photo Elaine Chiew

Zai Kuning’s Dapunta Hyang: Transmission of Knowledge (showing at TheatreWorks Singapore from 12 April to 13 May 2018) is a 17-meter-long 4-meter-high suspended skeleton of a sea vessel, a culmination of a 20-year investigation by the artist into the Riau archipelago; tracing three narrative strands: the almost-mythical ancient history of the Kingdom of Srivijaya (7th to 13thcentury), the livelihood of the inhabitants of the Riau archipelago — the orang laut (sea gypsies) as the first people of Singapore, and the dying pre-Islamic operatic tradition of mak yong.  

The vessel is made entirely of rattan, bound by red strings and beeswax, a combination of materials of “tensile pliability” (Tamares Goh, Exhibition Catalogue, 21), indurability and softness which carry their own inherent meanings and associations.  The installation was shown at the 57th Venice Biennale (2017) and variations were previously shown at OTA Fine Arts (2014), Esplanade– Theatres on the Bay, Singapore (2015), Art Basel Hong Kong (2015), and Palais de Tokyo (Paris, 2015), among others.  There have been seven versions of the vessel, and these versions can be viewed here

Zai Kuning, in the first ever catalogue documenting and historicising this installation, said:  “Without the ship there is no Srivijaya; without the ship the transmission of knowledge is impossible.”  Zai Kuning’s boat reimagines the journey of Dapunta Hyang Sri Jayanasa, the first king of Srivijaya and the boat that could’ve carried 20,000 soldiers, on his siddhayãtrã  (according to historian John Miksic, this is a pilgrimage or quest to a sacred site in order to seek spiritual or magical power).  What Zai also revealed through the elements accompanying this installation is that the siddhayãtrã   is also a crusading mission to impart knowledge about Buddhism to olden day Malaysia, Singapore, Borneo, Vietnam and even the Philippines, albeit without rape, killing and pillage.  The conquest or spread of influence was through a transmission of knowledge and consciousness.

The sea route taken by Dapunta Hyang Sri Jayanasa, installation
accompanying display.  Elaine Chiew

Srivijaya, a kingdom now shrouded in some mystery due to so much lost history, declined in power and influence in the 13th century, but in its heyday, it controlled much of the maritime trade in the Southeast Asian seas, and was instrumental in the expansion of Buddhism across the region.

Rock tied with red string, installation detail. Elaine Chiew

Walking past this majestic installation, it isn’t just the immense musculature of the ship that awes, a few other features stand out:

    • the stones dangling from the boat; these stones reference the anthropological tablets found from the sacred mountain of Bukit Seguntang in Palembang and contained kingly proclamations of Srivijaya, including a reference to siddhayãtrã and Dapunta Hyang;
    • the large-scale mirror fastened to the floor of the installation, to symbolise not just the open sea, but also as a temporal look-back at the legacy and origins of the Srivijayan kingdom and the Malay people (‘mirrors’ in visual art acting as devices to trigger the idea of ‘portal’ into other realms, and as an index of self-reflexivity); 
    • the waxed book bundles as the physical embodiment of the transmission of knowledge are covered with beeswax, apparently used as an embalming medium n the ancient world, but which Zai Kuning has been using since 1995 in his art. The bundles resemble archaeological relics, perhaps rescued from ocean depths; 
    • the symbolism of strings tying together generations;and geographies, and as a metonymic reference to human and archipelagic connectivities; and 
    • the row of black and white portraits of island performers of mak yong and orang laut as documented by Zai Kuning on his various trips to the islands of the Riau Archipelago.

Waxed bundles and mirror. Installation Detail. Photo Elaine Chiew

Mak Yong and Orang laut Portraits. Installation Detail. Photo Elaine Chiew

Comparing the versions to each other is one way to contextualise the work as well as examining its geographies of production and display.  For example, while the version at the Venice Biennale was quite similar to what’s on show currently at TheatreWorks, the version at Ota Fine Arts in 2014, entitled Dapunta Hyang: Mapping the Melayu was more minimalist and deconstructed. The same materials were deployed but rather than the full skeletal majesty of the reimagined vessel, there we had only the barebones suggestion of one — red strings suggestive of the prow of a boat tethered to stacks of books. A fishing net was suspended in mid-air with dangling stones at one end while a square wooden pier was constructed on the other, upon which knives and a chopper were embedded.  Absence here was thus given sharper emphasis, harking back to a pre-Muslim origin lost in time given the synonymity of Malays with Islam; as Zai Kuning put in in his interview with The Artling, “The first Malay king was building a Buddhist stupa where he set foot on.”

This write-up focusses only on the installation but it’s important to note that there were other elements pertaining to the exhibition: a film screening entitled “Chronicles of Amnesia” was held, as well as talks by historians John Miksic and T.K. Sabapathy on the symbolism and significance of sacred mountains to Malay culture and as anthropological evidence of Srivijaya.