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Visual Arts

Zai Kuning

History, memory, and loss in the nation-state


Published: 16 Oct 2019

Drawing has always been my favourite activity. It is not about the physical aspect of drawing, but rather the fact of moving towards marking. Marking is one of men and women’s oldest needs and desires. Marking is not about ownership but the attempt to salvage lost memory.

Title of artwork: Some came with their soul in a bottle and left with their hearts under their soles
Medium: Ink, graphite on paper and plywood
Date: 17 Apr – 31 May 2009
Location: Jendela (Visual Arts Space)

Title of artwork: Dapunta Hyang: Transmission of Knowledge
Created in collaboration with Mohamad Riduan (Singapore)
Medium: Rattan, waxed thread, stones and books
Date: 15 Jan – 19 Apr 2015
Location: Esplanade Concourse

Zai Kuning, as one of the early members of the seminal late 1980s Singapore art collective The Artists Village, has played a key role in the building of the city-state’s contemporary art scene. The multi-disciplinary artist, whose practice includes music, poetry, theatre, performance and film-making, produced a monumental series of works on paper for Esplanade in 2009, under the title Some came with their soul in a bottle and left with their hearts under their soles.

Zai’s 13 various-sized ink, charcoal and graphite drawings—self-contained and displaying an austere aesthetic—were well chosen for Jendela’s elegantly curved, elongated space. Applying his organic-toned inks directly to the heavy, absorbent paper without previous tracings and relying only on small, succinct preparatory sketches, the artist worked horizontally at ground level as do aboriginal painters in Australia. This physical connection with the earth seemed to permeate Zai’s compositions, lending them a depth and structure uncommon in works on paper.

His iconography too, initially enigmatic and harboring seemingly random, abstract-looking emblems and motifs, was in fact quite deliberate in its story-telling, the artist’s lexicon of signs emerging slowly to the careful viewer willing to spend a while contemplating the graphic pieces.

A thing of beauty, out of time, nearly ethereal, the series evoked some long-lost ancestral land with its geography and language, brought to life by the artist. The drawings were refreshingly personal in their stylistic independence from current aesthetic trends, with their connotations of the ancient and timeless. Yet subtle as they were, Zai’s pictorial essays were far from passive and instead called purposefully to action, asking the viewer to reflect with quiet concentration on the meaning of time and existence.

The work included a participatory component: setting up a resting and reading station in the centre of the gallery, the artist displayed little books hand-made, written, and illustrated by Singapore children. These slim tomes and the stories they contained invited their audience to sit and read for a while, so reinforcing the exhibition’s commitment to story-telling and its concern with time.

By encouraging this silent, solitary activity, the artist underscored the appeal and freedom of the dialogue with self, as well the fulfillment derived from focused vision often forgotten in our hurried, multi-tasking and chatter-polluted world.

For 2015’s celebration of the nation’s half century, Esplanade curators commissioned Zai Kuning in collaboration with fellow-practitioner Mohamad Riduan to create new work for the arts centre’s grand public Concourse area. Rising to the entrance zone’s spatial challenge, Zai and Riduan produced their Dapunta Hyang: Transmission of Knowledge, a stylised rattan boat that floated above the Concourse steps for the first months of 2015. The third in Zai's series specifically devoted to ships, Dapunta Hyang: Transmission of Knowledge pursues the artist’s ongoing interest in Singapore, regional history and the seafaring, animistic peoples of Southeast Asia, the Orang Laut, that have been essential themes of his practice for many years.

Pairing the boat image with hundreds of books, Zai’s installation, formally seductive with its play of volume and shadow-creating patterns on the floor of the art centre’s entrance, was iconologically thought-provoking in its allusion to local history.

The almost mythical accounts of Dapunta and his conquest were fascinating to me. How many ships did they build to carry 20,000 men? How big would these ships have been? How did they navigate the complicated and often treacherous geography of a region containing thousands of islands? How could this piece of history vanish and become completely forgotten? I began to wonder and imagine a 7th century Malay Buddhist/animistic world where ships were vessels seeking power, fortune and magic power, each vessel both a house of knowledge and a dungeon of death and torture.

Referencing the city-state’s premodern past and the island’s story, before the arrival of Sir Stamford Raffles, as an intersection for the traffic of goods, peoples and ideas, the Bugis-Makassar–style inspired ship, and the bound volumes held together with red string—some dangling from the ceiling, others stacked on the Concourse floor—chronicled Temasek’s ancient heritage as rich in cultural and practical knowledge with enduring value today.

Materials underpinned Zai’s visual metaphor: rattan, a common and inexpensive Southeast Asian building material with close ties to the everyday in its employment for the crafting of household baskets and furniture, as well as basic shelter, conveyed the idea of the adaptability and constant evolution of tradition over centuries.

For Zai, rattan also emblematises loss. The material, ubiquitous in the kampong when he was a child, is now difficult to find in the city-state due to changes in the country’s social organisation that have provoked the elimination of local kampong villages in favour of mass public housing built by the Housing Development Board. Zai also explained in a text penned for the exhibition that rattan for him is associated with punishment as in his youth it was the material of the canes used to discipline disobedient children.

The ship image, too, if descriptive, was also allusive, transmitting concepts of movement, progression, rootlessness, and discovery. Coupled with books, the vessel could be read as suggesting that personal and national identity, contrary to accepted notions whereby identity is fixed, is in flux, so diverse, and all the richer for it.

Zai Kuning’s finely-crafted, elegant red-string-bound rattan vessel was aesthetically seductive in the Concourse space, its delicacy especially obvious contrasted with the hard, angular stone of its surroundings, the art complex’s entrance. Yet beautiful as was Dapunta Hyang: Transmission of Knowledge, the work’s beauty had a function. It acted to engage viewers, drawing them to the piece’s meaning as a prompt to recollection of Southeast Asia’s pre-modern, pre-colonial past of idea transmission and intersecting peoples.

Read Zai Kuning's abstract on Dapunta Hyang: Transmission of Knowledge
Visual Arts at Esplanade

Commissioned, curated and thematically developed by our Visual Arts team, Esplanade's quarterly exhibitions feature established and emerging artists whose contemporary Asian artistic expressions not only chronicle the issues and sentiments of the region, but also offer vital insight into the complexities of our changing cultural landscapes and identities. These shorts essays and interviews act as complementary material to the exhibitions, allowing for a richer and fuller perspective on the artists and their practice.

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