Robert Zhao Renhui has become one of Singapore’s best-known and most acclaimed artists through his single-minded obsession with zoology. As he unveils his latest series – focusing on birds, bees and flowers – Gwen Pew heads to his studio to meet the man behind the camera.
Robert Zhao Renhui in his studio. Image courtesy of Morven Koh.
5 Dec 2013: The bright yellow door is unlocked, the lights inside flicker on, and into a jungle of creativity we tumble. There’s almost too much to take in all at once: on the central table alone, there’s a box filled to the brink with iridescent beetles in packets, a fake yellow flower with long tassels pokes its slender neck out from a shiny bronze vase, a dead fish lies pickling in a jar with a few other bugs next to a microscope. The rest of the room brims with books, shelves, boxes and framed photographs of landscapes and various animals lining the walls.
You’d be forgiven for thinking that we had stumbled into a zoologist’s laboratory, but this is actually the studio of Robert Zhao Renhui, tucked away on the fifth floor of Goodman Arts Centre. ‘It’s sort of like my brain, don’t you think?’ says the 30-year-old artist, surveying the space with quiet pride. ‘I work over there, I talk over there, I sleep over there – next to the bookshelves – but only when I have to work late…’
The whimsical nature of the studio reflects that of the man himself, who has a tendency to pause in the middle of his explanations, as though lost in his own stream of consciousness, and fluently flits between speaking about the real world and the one that he has conjured up through his photographs. He is, however, crystal clear about at least one thing: ‘I am not a zoologist or a scientist. I am an artist,’ he states emphatically. ‘People assume that I like animals just because of my work, and I do like them, but as an artist I’m interested in finding out why I like them and what makes me want to look at them.’
His fascination with animals started at an early age. He remembers always wanting to go to zoos wherever he went, and started collecting and taking photos of roadkill – which he kept in jars filled with alcohol – when he was 16. Today, he is known for his award-winning images of animals and the natural world in general, and operates under a fictional society called the Institute of Critical Zoologists. If you look under the ‘History’ section of the website, it says that the institute was founded in 1996 as a merger between Japanese and Chinese animal centres. In reality, however, Zhao established the platform in 2008 during his time at the Camberwell College of Arts in the UK. Furthermore, most of the life-like animals in his pictures are, in fact, usually either dead or realistic-looking models and toys collected from various sources, including pet shops (where he buys most of his dead fish and birds) and donations from various friends.
‘Living animals are too difficult to work with. They’re always moving and you can’t control them,’ he says. ‘I’m not really trying to mess with people’s heads. I just want to challenge the way we see things and prompt my audience to be more reflective. Institutes and photography are both authoritative sources, and I want people to question them. I’m against reading everything too simply.’
2013 has been a busy year for Zhao. He was one of six local artists to be selected to take part in the President’s Young Talents exhibition earlier this year, and is currently showcasing his expansive series, A Guide to the Flora and Fauna of the World, at the 2013 Singapore Biennale (on display at the Peranakan Museum), which is essentially an encyclopaedic series of portraits of over 50 domesticated animals or species that have learned to adapt to man-made environments.
During his research for the project, one thing that captured his interest in particular was a species he calls the ‘blood bee’. ‘It’s this kind of bee in New York that started producing red honey,’ Zhao explains. ‘And they found out that it’s because they’ve been drinking juice produced at a cherry factory.’
As he delved deeper into the world of bees, another series of works began to form. He found out that bees, along with most insects and birds, see and communicate in the ultraviolet spectrum – so attempting to present the world as they see it, Zhao shot a series of images with a handheld UV light. Each shot consists of six or seven different photos, all stitched together on Photoshop, where Zhao also enhanced the UV colours digitally.
The finished collection of nine photographs, named The Last Thing You See, opened last month at 2902 Gallery and will be showing until the start of January. Part of the idea, says Zhao, is to question the idea of vision and our understanding of what living things see.
‘You know, there are these spiders that spin very intricate webs in the forests and we’ve been mystified by them for ages, because surely they’d want to keep a trap invisible. We used to think that it’s to warn humans so that we don’t step on them,’ Zhao explains. ‘It wasn’t until recently that we realised that under UV lights they look like flowers to insects – flowers communicate with bees through UV to guide them to where the pollen is – so they will get confused and fly straight into it. Sometimes, our vision is more limiting than informative.’
While he has travelled far and wide – from the Arctic to deserts – to shoot his images, the current series are all shot locally; the orchids and birds were photographed at the Botanic Gardens and Jurong Bird Park respectively. As he puts it, ‘Singapore is a fruitful place to work. There’s more support and resources; I know where everything is and things get done faster.’
From the teenage roadkill collector messing around with his dad’s camera to a nationally-beloved photographer whose star is still on the rise, Zhao has certainly come a long way – and he has no intentions of stopping here. He doesn’t think that he’ll be moving away from working with animals and nature anytime soon, but looks forward to continuously refining his style.
And as for what happened to all those dead animals in jars that he painstakingly kept over the years? ‘I just threw them all out. I always thought that I could do something with them one day, but there really wasn’t much I could do. And it was just getting kind of gross,’ he says. ‘Yeah, just… gross.’