Interview: Zhao Renhui

TOP, Tottori Desert artist-led expedition
© Zhao Renhui, 2008

Here’s the interview with Zhao Renhui, who graciously and painstakingly answered my questions. I hope that you’d enjoy reading this.

How and why did you focus your work on animals? Was it an obsession that grew over time, alongside photography, or did photography inform your choice?

I think I use photography to make sense of the world. I have never really understood my own fascination and attraction towards the natural world. I don’t think I can appreciate the alphabet ‘Z’ without ever seeing a Zebra. Sometimes I think it’s because my father brought me to the zoo every Chinese Lunar New Year till I was 14 or it could be because my grandfather was a taxidermist and he allowed me to watch him skinned his specimens when I was 5.

My personal zoo visits are rather obsessive. Since my father stopped bringing me to the Singapore Zoo, I started going to zoos on my own. In a short period within the last 10 years, I have visited 74 zoos, 35 natural history museums and other institutions and spaces where a forced-meeting between humans and animals occurs. My attraction to zoos has dwindle in the last year, ever since I started to examine my personal interest in looking at animals. I realized that as much as I try, there is no possible way to fully appreciate nature or animals in our society today. Every attempt to be one with nature is an irony, no matter how sincere it may be.

We relate to animals and the world through images (photography). So I guess photography seems like a natural medium for me. We live in a world that hungers for factual documentation and mediated experiences, and this phenomenon actually blurs the distinction between fact and fiction.

While your work is documentary on the surface, I believe that a large part of it seems to question the authenticity of documentary photography itself. Would you care to share more on that?

Truth and fiction seems to sit on the opposite ends of the spectrum. I think as an artist using photography, it can be problematic to make certain distinctions about an image with this kind of discourse. I am very much influenced by Walid Raad’s definition of how truth and fiction has no clear distinctions.

Walid sees truth as mediated elements which makes them fiction, and fiction as historical phenomenon, which makes them ultimately a fact. History as written by historians, are highly fictionalized and mediated accounts as much as most documents we encounter today. They are sometimes sensationalized into a consumable drama.

Every image appears to be truthful. This is an inherent nature of photography.

I think the best way to answer this question is with the sudden influx of wildlife documentary films in the last century. Wildlife documentaries on Discovery Channel today is a bad collision of scientific facts build with aesthetic fictions. I necessarily see the production of authentic wildlife documentaries more problematic then any of the work I produce.

I view your works with suspicion, I believe that the Institute is a fabrication! But that’s your aim right?

Yes, I like to create a context in which we can critically examine something. There are people who critically examine every form of knowledge and I think that is healthy. People are amused with the stories I come up with. But it’s not as if this is about what I can come up with again and again to fool people. I do not mind if you think of it this way but you have to ask yourself eventually, of all the possible stories that I can tell, why do I choose to tell the stories I tell and not others? Do these stories capture your attention and belief?

Its very important for me to say I work in fiction in a professional context. I am becoming more and more convinced, that certain things only appear in fiction. Fiction is the place where they can appear, not the historical world nor the scientific world.

What do you wish that viewers would derive from your works?

I do not have a statement which I want to share. I feel that becomes a little like propaganda. I try not to be manipulative in an apparent way. What I do within my work is to basically highlight objects and phenomenon that is already happening in the world around us. It is a reflection of the world and perhaps to inform us what we don’t know that we already know.

TOP, Lesser White Nosed Monkey: Extinct: Cold Room, from (“Soon Bo’s Cold Room and Shelves“)
© Zhao Renhui, 2008

How much thought goes into planning for each image? Do you work in a preconceived idea for a series and find related subjects or do you work on individual images first before piecing something together?

My work is always a departure from situations and objects which I observe in real life, or reality. For example, in the Acusis project, I was inspired by how the Japanese use acupuncture on fishes to induce hibernation. This allows them to transport fishes out of water for up to 10 hours, how bizarre is that? When I was in China walking in the forest, I was suddenly grabbed by a pair of invisible hands. It turned out to be a group of ornithologists camouflaged in the forest. They were observing birds for research. As I stared deeper into the forest, I realized there were about 5 to 6 of them, it was really peculiar indeed.

I will push these ideas to its logical extremes within my work, always within a plausible narration. I think my work is actually less ironic then whatever happens in real life.

I subscribe to words like “wildlife conservation”, “animal traps” etc on Google alerts. Whenever I find an object or scenario that interests me and engages me on several levels, I try to take a step back. I approach my work as a distanced observer. This allows me to grasp and understand my initial curiosity and interest in the subject matter.

In The Blind, how did you manage to create the camouflage suit, was it largely done on the computer? I think that the defense department would love to get hold on that for our nation’s protection.

Yes, it’s sort of a performance within the forest and afterwards on the computer. Your question raised a really good point. Camouflage has always been used as concealment for protection and attack. So the observation of nature with camouflage is a relatively new phenomenon along with the invention of photography. Observation with camouflage was first used by nature photographers in the 1900s. The camouflage of scientists observing nature to understand her thus becomes a highly tensed spectacle. There are notions of both intrusion and protection at the same time in the natural landscape.

How has working with the Institute of Critical Zoologists helped you with your work so far?

I was struggling to find my own voice when I started out as an artist. It took me quite a while to merge all my sensibilities together at The Institute of Critical Zoologists. It allows me to question the power that we give to institutions from an authoritative position. The Institute is a serious place where I can have fun.

You obtained your BA in Camberwell College of the Arts, how has your education and experience abroad inform you as an artist? Do you think that you would have achieved something similar if you were based here?

I think photography education anywhere is the same. The only difference was how I was able to relate to what was being taught to me. I was young and ignorant in Singapore, so a lot of things in photography appeared to be superficial. I think I was too superficial.

After traveling and meeting more people and getting into trouble with my art, my life had a qualitative change when I was in London.

I became too serious about life and animals in general. This became evident in my work when I try to be more sensible with my images. In London, I was more open to an infinite combination of possibilities in photography.

TOP, Raffles Tiger: Extinct: Cold Room, from (“Soon Bo’s Cold Room and Shelves“)
© Zhao Renhui, 2008

Name some photographers/artists who have influenced your work.

Walid Raad and Mark Dion. (And I just found out Walid Raad was in Singapore in 2004!)

I do know a photographer by the name of Anqi. She is a close friend and a great artist. She keeps to herself and a piece of photographic work she has been doing for the last 20 years is to take a picture every time she thinks she is going to die. I am the chosen curator for that piece of work, if she dies. She is constantly clicking her camera, whenever she thinks she is going to die. She met with an accident once and managed to shoot 7 pictures before she got knocked down by a car. I thought it was going to be the most amazing piece of work I will ever see but she survived the accident and this piece of work carries on. At the hospital, it was rather ironic when both us sort of wished she died, in a joking way.

What are you currently working on?

My next project, an M1 Fringe Festival Commission, talks about wildlife smuggling as an act that tries to be one with nature.

“A guide to the flora and fauna of the world” is a celebration of the creativity of wildlife smugglers, or the wildlife smuggler as an artist. Instead of looking at the ethics involved in wildlife smuggling, the work provides a perspective on the ingenuity of wildlife smugglers in their attempts to be ‘one with nature’.

The work is based on the experiments of Dr.Tang, who brought the art of wildlife smuggling down to a science. Dr. Tang pioneered smuggling of wildlife through public postal systems with a series of experiments. One of the experiments included a book which was hollowed out to contain the smuggled animal. The title of the book which he always used was “A guide to the flora and fauna of the world”.

Where are you heading next (with the prize money)?

I think this is the toughest question. I’m not too sure about the future and I never really am. Right now, after this interview, I will be trying to concentrate on writing a letter to Estonia for a long-term project about how art and science collides in the most unusual and lovely way.

A big thanks to Robert who wholeheartedly answered my inquisitive questions and gave me such thoughtful responses! I can’t wait to see his new works.