Naima Morelli

The Singapore Series – Chapter 33

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Robert Zhao Renhui

A definition of ‘artist’ according to my arts writer friend Donato is a person that is obsessed with something. However, as soon as artists become famous, you see this obsession wearing out or being somehow forced into a structure. Whereas over the years Robert Zhao has developed a team of people collaborating with him, I’d say his obsession is always there. He’s a total nature nerd, and you can feel his genuine obsession with it, paired with a strong conceptual background, which makes him in my opinion and in that of many other art critics, an incredibly powerful artist. Where you’d expect a snobbish, intellectual figure, you meet a very nice and considerate man who is really interested in sharing his passion and his work.

I mentioned my second encounter with him for the project for OH! Open House in Holland Village. The first time I met him however, it was at his studio, which was filled to the brim with all kind of nature-related objects and books. A lot of books.

“Some of these books are about nature and animals, others are about science, others are art books,” said the artist, giving me a little tour. “But the books that I like are probably the very old nature books. I have very strange nature books and some of them, it surprises me that they even exist, especially when it comes to natural history, like books on an animals that are extinct, like the Tasmanian tiger. They might help me for a project next time.”

For Robert, the idea of calling what he could do ‘art’, came after the obsession. He can trace it back to when his father would bring him to the zoo, or perhaps to when he started collecting animal traps. “I just like to collect them from different countries, and I don’t know why I do that. When I went to Paris, there was a famous mole trap shop where I bought a trap, and I didn’t know what it was for, because it was very strange. It looks like a sculpture almost, it’s strangely shaped. I bought it anyways and it was only two years later that I saw it in a book and I realised that it was a mole trap. It was very different from all of the traps that I know and then I realised that there were a lot of designs and idea that go into making a trap, from different countries. In Japan, the mole trap looks like a telescope, it’s funny. When I realised every country had its own different design, I started to buy them as a souvenir. Then when I became an artist, I started thinking seriously about why I was doing this and I realised that it can actually be a work. Because it has a story and it talks about also why you want to trap animals. And it’s a very nice symbol between humans and animals.”

“I guess the art helps me to understand why I’m attracted to certain things. It’s a kind of thing that is very useful to understand why I do certain things in my life. To understand myself better. And also to try to make use of the things I’m interested in, so there is a channel for me to investigate. Sometimes it may come to nothing. But when I was in college, there was a travel grant. I’d never applied for a grant ever in my life. So it was only a 200-word essay. I wanted to go to all the zoos in Spain with the money and I got the grant, and I was like “wow”. So you can actually do what you want in the name of art, and you get paid for it. For me it was very bizarre (laughs). This was a big realisation about how you could pursue your interests in art.”

We started talking of his most famous and important body of work, contained in a book called: “A Guide to the Flora and Fauna of the World”, which appears to be an authentic catalogue of plants and animals, but is in fact entirely fictitious. In the book, the artist accounts for 55 different animals, plants and environments that have been manipulated by man but do not appear to be. On one level, it is an examination of the many ways in which animals adapt to ever-changing conditions. We have creatures that have evolved in often unexpected ways to cope with our changing world, including rhinoceroses with barely visible horns and monkeys dependent on food handed out by humans. This relationship with humans is key, as the books shows the many ways in which humans are altering nature — with increasingly more and more refined processes. Human intervention can indeed manifest in mutations engineered to serve various purposes from scientific research to the desire for ornamentation, such as man-made gelatine grapes, genetically modified tomatoes and “unbreakable” eggs. On another level, it is about trust. To what extent can we trust photography and science? And how does this affect our behaviour?

“I’m not trying to say that this is right and this is wrong. I’m just saying that this is something that has been happening for a long time — a long, long time,” the artist quietly told me, sitting in his studio at Goodman Projects.

I asked him whether it is hard for him to maintain a sort of detachment, as he works with environmental issues: “Do you ever feel passionate about making statements or angry about how the environment is ruined, also considering your past as an activist?”

“It’s really hard, because the more you read about the environmental impact we have on the real workers on the ground trying to fix the problem, the more serious it becomes for you,” replied Robert. “Scientist do a lot of hard work and I have to be careful to not treat it too lightly. Because I know them and it’s just kind of having a balance, how can I as an artist contribute to this situation? And not think about it too light-heartedly as well, so to it doesn’t belittle the very serious work that scientists do. And also to know that I’m not a scientist at the same time, otherwise I would reproduce a very poor version of science in my art. It takes a long time to negotiate for these things in some of these books that I do. People on the ground working on the issues are very sensitive to it. And a lot of times I wonder how art can contribute to the situation.”

I’d say Robert Zhao’s work it’s more of an observation. In the beginning, his attraction to fauna and flora let him translate this more into activism through photography. Robert told me that the reason why he chose photography in the first place was that as a teenager he didn’t do well in school. That really surprised me. Because of the strong theoretical background of his work, I was imagining him being a studious kid. But as the most creative type of talent would have it, he was bored by the texts that were suggested in school, and he would look for and read a lot of science texts and books about nature and animals, following his natural curiosity.

“One of my close friends is a scientist. We were in the same secondary school, and he was in the top of our class, and I was in the last, so we never talked to each other until the last day of school. He had an art exhibition in the school library and I was there looking at animal books. It was the last day, so and he had an exhibition called “Surprised by Birds”. So basically he loved to look at and draw birds. He had a table and on it were his drawings and two bottles of snakes in alcohol. So when I saw that I said hey, I have something like this too. Because I’d also collect and keep animals in bottles of alcohol. He eventually became a very good friend of mine. But he went into academia and he always wrote papers, and he brought me to the forest and he told me about all the ecological issues, the problems. From him, I’d get all my science information and inspiration and all the things that are wrong with science, and he thinks it’s ridiculous. He’d tell me, and then I’d try to talk about it in my work. So he’s a very, very important person in my work.”

The switch to treat the subject in a more nuanced way through art came thanks to a lecturer he had at the Tamasek Polytechinic Design School in Singapore. He suggested that Robert should go to art school to study photography. The young student was already very good with the technical aspect of photography, so the teacher spurred him on to make the best use of his skills.

Driven by a desire to expand his horizons, he left for the UK to study at the Campbell College of Arts. During that time, Robert felt he had to unlearn a lot of things that he had learnt in school. He found the art school in London to be very liberal and free, and he had the perception that, although his lecturers saw some potential in him, they found his work at the time — in the artist’s words “very sad images of animals” — quite boring.

By being exposed to art, visiting museums and encounters with a tutor who really helped him develop his language, he conceived of the Institute of Critical Zoologists. When he founded it, was called the Institute of Zoological Studies: “In the beginning, I was just conjuring up myself to be a very imaginative scientist. I was reading all the things that institutes do, it was very serious, and in fact a lot of these science institutions have very serious goals and objective. I just wanted to see what would happen if I mimicked all these structures and sentences in my work, and what could I get. What would I do if I was an institution, and what would the language make people believe? People hardly question science on the internet. A lot of science is actually very subjective, it’s kind of a question mark when it comes to animals or nature. So I just wanted to kind of make people slow down in the way they read about nature through science, so it was kind of really analysing how science can make us understand nature in a certain way.”

What Robert Zhao is doing for science with the Institute of Critical Zoologists is of course valid for every field of knowledge. In this era where you can easily get information, it is easy to not analyse the source. And even if you do, a big part of how the news is made is all about a construction, a narrative — but taken as truths. Lebanse artist Walid Raad — who is an inspiration for Robert — works in a similar way but for history, focusing on how beliefs are manipulated.

On that point, there is one story that is always mentioned in all the interviews with Robert, because it is one of those paradoxical tales of contemporary art, like the Venetian carpenter who painted Duchamp’s installation Étant donnés white, because he thought that old door needed a revamp.

In the case of Robert, it all started from his interest in a leaf insect. He was contacted by a photo editor of Discover magazine, a popular science and tech journal, who wanted to run one of his pictures showing a very well-camouflaged leaf insect perched on a plant. The image was from the artist’s series called The Great Pretenders, which explored ideas of mimicry and authenticity in photography. In those pictures, there were only leaves, and no insects. The magazine went into print with Robert’s work, with no explanation that this was the work of an artist and not the documentation from an institute.

In the meantime, an entomologist from Germany who had studied insects his entire life, but he couldn’t see the leaf insect in the picture, wrote to Robert to ask for clarification and then visited the Critical Zoologist website. At a first glance the website could have fooled him, with its very old school internet graphic, very grey and stern, just like a real science website. However, upon closer inspection, he understood why he could not see the insect in the picture. There wasn’t an insect, it was the work of an artist.

Later Robert replied to him and the two met. “Meeting him had a huge impact on me, my mind was blown! Because he’s a flies expert!” Now Robert could barely contain his excitement. “Before meeting him, I didn’t think I’d work with him because I was not interested in flies, but after I met him I started to look differently at all the flies around me. I started to notice that there are so many insects around me, even in the house. I started to look at insects.” Insect were indeed the subject of his exhibition at the Kadist Foundation in San Francisco and were carried on as a focal point in his later production.

The way Robert works is usually by tackling multiple projects at the same time, trying to make them connected in some way. When I visited him, along with the Institute of Critical Zoologists, he was working on a more Singapore-based project called “The Land Archive”. It was manly about the changes and issues connected with the Singaporean landscape, especially land reclamation.

The reclamation of land from surrounding waters is used in Singapore to expand the city-state’s limited area of usable, natural land. The process consists of building outwards into local bodies of water. This can happen in various modalities, including buying sand. “We buy sand from everywhere, destroying our neighbours’ landscapes,” explains Robert. “Land reclamation is very damaging for the environment and then we store them around island. So we have these giant sand areas around Singapore. We cannot enter the space, we can just see and it disappears after four or five years. This is a whole kind of archive of our landscape.”

Land reclamation has been used in Singapore since the early 19th century in response to the city-state’s rapid economic growth, to supplement the city-state’s available commercial, residential, industrial and governmental properties.

Robert started to look at the landscape of Singapore and its history, three years into the Institute of the Critical Zoologists. He started building this land archive on the side, developing project develop over a longer period of time. As an institution, the Land Archive presents itself as managing an extensive archive of documents from private memoirs, historical maps and photographs of oral history interviews and audio-visual materials, some of which date back to the early 19th century. The work ended up being collected in a book — the artist’s favourite medium — to chronicle the significant changes in Singapore’s natural and urban landscape that have occurred over a 100-year period. The description of the book is also meant to be fictional: “The 15 images in this volume have been carefully selected by researchers from The Land Archive to capture the changing face of this tropical island-state. They touch on issues of land reclamation, national boundaries, ecological changes, pollution, conservation and the ever-evolving skyline.”

“When I was in Tamasek Poli, all of my projects were in the reclaimed land area. It is a very surreal landscape; it is very new land. While in Singapore the beaches are really ugly, this is a very nice beach. When I was in school, I was just happy to take pictures with that landscape, but I never thought of land reclamation in a bigger perspective. After I came back and started to think more and understand how it worked, I asked myself why nobody here in Singapore actually is connected to this reclaimed land. We have no connection, no memory, whereas maybe in France, in Japan, they have natural dunes, similar to the ones we have here, but natural. Because ours are artificial, we cannot have a memory and emotional connection to them. In my work, I put people in the dunes and imagine a connection with this surreal landscape.”

The result of this research was for a series where he created an imaginary landscape where people could go to the top of the dune made of reclaimed land. “When I showed this picture, everybody was like, “wow, you actually managed to go to top of the dune.” I said “no no, this is actually two different images together.” But everybody was imagining how amazing it would have been to reach the top of the dune.”

The artist modified pictures of dunes from different countries, giving them a more Singaporean context. We already mentioned the importance of memory in the fast-changing Singaporean landscape, and the inevitable sense of nostalgia which is part of the spirit of Singaporeans, who don’t have an actual place to go back to, in order to remember their childhood.

Robert Zhao Renhui wasn’t immune from this ethos, and he began collecting a lot of historical documents and photographs of Singapore. “At the moment I’m trying to see what I can do with them to see what kind of system of pattern I can get from all of these pictures, to construct the kind of new meaning of how Singapore was in the past.” All these ended up in the project at OH! Open House.

“We are a tropical island and also a British colony, so in different periods we were very famous for different things. Initially we were really famous for fruits and coconut plantations, so there was a period when there were all of these coconut trees. Then rubber was planted and we became famous for rubber threes, so all the photographs from Singapore were of rubber threes. There was a lot of fascination with fruits, because back then fruits were not so common in Europe, especially tropical fruits. We had a lot in Singapore. It’s a kind of lost history.”

The artist looked at his collection of pictures of Singapore for a long time to see how he could turn them into work. When I first visited him, he showed me some postcards: “I have over a thousand of them, 1890 to 1980, so about 100 years. In 1890 when the island was still a forest, in all the postcards, the view was facing out. You didn’t have a lot of pictures of the island itself because it was all trees. And when the buildings started coming out in the view of the island, the postcards started to point towards the island, and until the 60s or 70s, it became our skyline, the CBD. So for me, the view from inside and from outside was a journey of how we conquered the whole island.”