Time Out Singapore: Robert Zhao Renhui

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.

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.’

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Time Out Singapore: Bolshoi Ballet’s ‘Swan Lake’ Preview

Literally meaning ‘Big Ballet’ in Russian, the Moscow-based Bolshoi Ballet is one of the world’s oldest dance companies – although its reputation has been tarnished by a string of recent scandals. Gwen Pew reports.

Bolshoi Ballet's production of 'Swan Lake'. Image courtesy of Bolshoi Ballet.

Bolshoi Ballet’s production of ‘Swan Lake’. Image courtesy of Bolshoi Ballet.

13 Nov 2013: Literally meaning ‘Big Ballet’ in Russian, the Moscow-based Bolshoi Ballet is one of the world’s oldest dance companies. First established in 1776, they gained international fame in the early 20th century with their highly successful, masterful performances, which, true to their name, were some of the biggest spectacles in the world of dance.

Despite its prestige (or perhaps, because of it), the company has been plagued in recent years by a series of scandals and rumours of internal rivalry between dancers and the management team. The in-fighting reached breaking point in January this year when one of the principle dancers, Pavel Dmitrichenko, became upset that his girlfriend Anzhelina Vorontsova was denied a leading dance role, and hired a man to throw acid in the face of artistic director Sergei Filin.

Filin has since undergone surgery to save his eyesight, and while he is still recovering and has yet to return to the company full-time, the Bolshoi seems keen to move on and turn over a new leaf with its new season under the direction of ballet manager Galina Stepanenko, maintaining the classic style with which the company made its name.

The current touring production of Swan Lake received unanimous acclaim in London, and the show will be coming to Singapore this month. This will be the only appearance Bolshoi makes in Asia, and also marks the company’s debut here on our Little Red Dot.

Catch their performance of Tchaikovsky’s stunning love tragedy and judge for yourself whether the company can regain its former reputation as one of the best ballet troupes around.

Time Out Singapore: Cultural Medallion Winners 2013

Established in 1979 by former Singapore President Ong Teng Cheong (then Minister for Culture), the Cultural Medallion is given to the country’s most prominent artists in the fields of dance, theatre, literature, music, photography, art and film. Gwen Pew talks to this year’s three recipients, who received their awards at the end of last month, to find out about their career highlights and what’s next for them.

Cultural Medallion Ivan Heng, the artistic director of local theatre company Wild Rice. Image courtesy of the National Arts Council.

Cultural Medallion Ivan Heng, the artistic director of local theatre company Wild Rice. Image courtesy of the National Arts Council.

23 Oct 2013:

Ivan Heng

Born in 1963, Heng graduated with a law degree from the National University of Singapore but soon decided that his true calling in life was theatre. He went on to build up an impressive resume working with everyone from local theatre pioneer Kuo Pao Kun to the Hong Kong Tang’s Opera Troupe, and flirting with ballet and Shakespeare in between it all. The awards poured in, and the actor-director founded W!ld Rice in 2000, which is now one of the largest theatre companies in Singapore.

Career highlight: ‘[When I was] creative director of the Opening and Closing Ceremonies of the Singapore 2010 Youth Olympic Games. When the cauldron burst into flames at the Opening Ceremony, it was a dream come true. It put Singapore on the world map.’

Looking ahead: ‘In the immediate future, I will be directing a new production of Jack & the Bean-Sprout, our holiday blockbuster musical for all the family. We’re also in the process of lining up a season celebrating 2015 and we are also planning to restart our Young and W!LD division to nurture aspiring theatre professionals.’

Tsung Yeh

As the music director of the Singapore Chinese Orchestra, conductor laureate of the Hong Kong Sinfonietta and music director of the South Bend Symphony Orchestra, Yeh is the first person to be leading a major Chinese and Western symphony orchestra simultaneously. Born in Shanghai in 1950, he joined the SCO in 2002 and has since taken the company from strength to strength with his innovative vision, with numerous performances every month.

Career highlight: ‘It was my honour to be appointed the music director for Singapore’s National Day Parade 2007. There were many firsts in this event which was truly a memorable moment for myself and for the nation. It was Singapore’s first NDP at the Marina Bay floating platform, the first to feature a combined orchestra of our nation’s national orchestras (the SCO and SSO), have a conductor as music director and feature local classical vocalists.’

Looking ahead: ‘Three directions for SCO – to soar to new heights (go international), to drive forward (be innovative in our programmes) and depth (to engage and serve the community).’

Mohamed Latiff Mohamed

A prolific writer who often centres his works on the struggles faced by the Malay community after Singapore gained its independence, Mohamed, 63, has produced a number of influential poems, short stories and novels. He is a three-time winner of the Singapore Literature Prize and some of his most notable works include Confrontation and Ziarah Cinta.

Career highlight: ‘One that I remember vividly is the World Congress of Poets that I attended in Seoul, South Korea in 2002. The people there greeted us with great warmth and respect. They would crowd around and follow us while we visited the city. Such was the reception that it seemed to me that the people of Korea gave great honour to people whom we call “poets”.’

Looking ahead: ‘To be able to translate all my works into English to be read worldwide.’

Time Out Singapore: Haegue Yang

Born in South Korea and based in Berlin, Haegue Yang, 42, is the first artist to participate in STPI Gallery’s new initiative Platform Projects, which hopes to raise awareness of contemporary art in Singapore. In this exhibition, Yang tickles our various senses by incorporating local spices and other food items into her works. She tells Gwen Pew what it’s like to play with food.

South Korean artist created works using local food and spices during her residency at STPI. Image courtesy of the artist.

South Korean artist created works using local food and spices during her residency at STPI. Image courtesy of STPI Gallery.

8 Oct 2013: ‘I was fascinated by Singapore’s diverse culture in general, and the variety of exotic foods and spices that are readily available at the market here is simply inspiring. I discovered these items as I went on small field trips to various places in Singapore, so incorporating these materials in my production at STPI just happened more or less spontaneously. I am always in search of new materials as a sculptor and I felt it was especially important to let myself be inspired by the place during my residency at STPI. It is astounding how much these everyday elements are able to convey – they reference a broader history, encompassing their origins from an evolved civilisation to contemporary life. In this instance, they reflect Singapore’s diverse population and colonial history as a commercial port city of South-East Asia. I was humbled by the materials and wanted to create something simple yet significant with them.

‘The process varies in terms of its execution. In the group of works under ‘Embossed Prints and Juice Dyes’ (pictured), slices of various vegetables, untreated spices and herbs were pressed into fresh paper pulp to create small bumps and unevenness on the surface. It was a relatively simple and direct process. It likens to what we know from our childhood days of creating prints using chopped vegetables.

‘However, not every item we tried printed successfully due to their different consistencies, so we had to constantly test various vegetables to produce the desired work. Another challenge for us was realising that natural juice from pressed vegetables easily fades. I learnt that one had to simply accept this ephemeral nature. The natural product and the questions around it positively challenged me. ‘It was very meaningful to work in Singapore, since my production has taken place mainly in Europe in the last two decades. I loved the hot and humid weather, and the evening breeze with night food. I can almost feel that when I look at these works. I hope viewers can feel that Singaporean air and smell, and sense the joy and melancholia that I, as a visitor and outsider, brought to my works.’

Time Out Singapore: Mary-Ann Teo

After a ten-year hiatus, local photographer Mary-Ann Teo makes a comeback this month with a show of images shot by a pinhole camera made with a rubbish bin. Gwen Pew takes a closer look.

Mary-Ann Teo at work on her latest series, 'Through A Pinhole'. Image courtesy of the artist.

Mary-Ann Teo at work on her latest series, ‘Through A Pinhole’. Image courtesy of the artist.

3 Sep 2013: I developed an interest in photography in primary school because I felt I saw things differently from others,’ reminisces local photographer Mary-Ann Teo. ‘I would photograph drains with an Instamatic camera because they looked like pretty streams with their rust-stained concrete.’

Although the 39-year-old is now a full-time photography and art theory lecturer at various schools – such as Lasalle and Nanyang Technological University (NTU) – and has not held an exhibition since 2003, Teo never lost her gift of seeing the world in quirky ways. This month, she makes a comeback with cool images shot with a rather unusual contraption: a pinhole camera made from a recycled rubbish bin.

‘I’ve constructed pinhole cameras with the usual containers such as Milo and tea tins and boxes before,’ she says, while also admitting that this is the first time she has used something a bit more unconventional to snap pictures with. ‘The bin is suitable since it is round, which would give me a slight wide-angle effect in the images,’ she explains. ‘It has a proper lightproof cover and it was already black, so the only thing I had to do with it was to pierce a hole through one side of the bin and make a cover for it. It’s good for placing around the areas I wanted to photograph, and only took me half an hour to build.’

Regarding her hiatus from exhibiting, Teo says: ‘I am trying to get back into practice again, and create more interest in pinhole photography in the age of digital media at the same time. Pinhole photography is the simplest form of capturing images. It’s back to basics and one can get amazing photographs out of this.’

After her self-created contraption was made, Teo went out exploring the Kampong Glam area and ended up creating a series of around 15 intriguing photographs, which will be displayed at her solo show at Objectifs. All of them are in black and white, as it is her preferred style. ‘I find colours distracting,’ she explains. ‘There is a peculiar mystery to black and white. It’s quiet and strong.’

Teo admits she chose Kampong Glam as her shooting location mainly as a matter of convenience, as Objectifs was located nearby – after each shot, the paper negatives (still inside the bin) would need to be brought back to the gallery immediately to be developed. She adds, however, that ‘it was also a great opportunity to learn more about the history of this area. The Kampong Glam that used to be was very different from what it is now, even though it’s still an area for social gathering.’

Aside from the exhibition, Teo will also be conducting a workshop (on 7 Sep at Objectifs) to explain how pinhole cameras work. ‘I will be teaching participants how to make a pinhole camera, and they can take as many photos as time allows them,’ she says. When asked whether she’ll be bringing out her rubbish bin pinhole again in the future, she says with a smile, ‘I may use the camera for the workshop, and I am definitely keeping it for future projects as well. It’d be good to construct another camera with something different in the future, too!’

Time Out Singapore: The Mystery of Picasso’s Creative Process

Five stunning collections of prints by the 20th century master debut here to celebrate STPI Gallery’s reopening after months of renovations. Gwen Pew finds out more.

An image from Picasso's 'The Bull' series. Image courtesy of STPI Gallery.

An image from Picasso’s ‘The Bull’ series. Image courtesy of STPI Gallery.

26 Jun 2013: While Pablo Picasso is better remembered as of the pioneer of Cubism and for his paintings and sculptures, it is a little known fact that he was actually also a master of prints. Born in 1881 in Málaga, Spain, the celebrated artist had spent years experimenting with lithographs and linocuts; now for the first time, 48 of those works from his son Claude Picasso’s private collection are in Asia, at the newly refurbished Singapore Tyler Print Institute Gallery.

‘The works [on show] span a range of 20 years of Picasso’s creativity, from 1945 to 1965,’ says Tatyana Franck, the Geneva-based curator of this exhibition. ‘STPI’s expertise in printmaking is very relevant to the works in this exhibition, which reveal a more intimate side of Picasso and his practice in the print medium through the expressive quality of his lithographs, linocuts and rare corresponding plates.’

Lithographs are created by drawing mirror images on lime stones or metal plates using grease-based drawing materials, which are processed and inked and then printed onto paper, as the water will repel oily ink. Linocuts, on the other hand, require the artist to directly carve into a sheet of linoleum in layers, which is then coloured with ink by a roller and pressed onto paper or fabric.

Apart from the prints, 11 photographs by American photographer David Douglas Duncan, now 95, will also be on show. ‘Pablo Picasso appears to have been constantly fascinated by the photographic medium. His face was the subject of numerous photographs and he was the most photographed artist of his time,’ says Franck. Duncan, however, was ‘the only photographer admitted into [Picasso’s] private life, to experience his day-to-day living and to maintain such a close friendship with the artist until his death.’