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.’

Time Out Singapore: Romain Jacquet-Lagrèze

Now based in Hong Kong, French photographer Romain Jacquet-Lagrèze has been spending the past few years capturing the Fragrant Harbour’s organised chaos through his camera lens. He speaks to Gwen Pew following the opening of his exhibition, Vertical Horizon, at Artistry last week.

Hong Kong-based French photographer, Romain Jacquet-Lagrèze. Image courtesy of the artist.

Hong Kong-based French photographer, Romain Jacquet-Lagrèze. Image courtesy of the artist.

22 Oct 2013: 

You’ve lived in Hong Kong for quite a few years now – why did you decide to move there?
In 2009 I was already in Asia, working in Tokyo as a visual artist. Then my contract ended and I graduated from my university in France, but I was not keen on working in France and wanted to keep traveling in Asia instead. In Japan I heard many good things about Hong Kong and how futuristic it was looking. So I decided to go witness it for myself.

Was the city a love-at-first-sight thing, or did it take you some time to get used to it?
At first I felt very impressed by the city, but I was thinking that it was much too packed, crowded and noisy. It took me some time to adapt to this new environment and to fully fall in love with the city’s lifestyle, the messiness of the streets and the unique visual impact of the buildings.

When did you first start taking photos of the city?
When I arrived in Hong Kong I was more focused on visual arts, but little by little, I grew fonder and fonder of the city, and I wanted to record it with the best accuracy I could. So in early 2010 I bought a camera and I started to switch my way of depicting Hong Kong from visual art to photography.

Tell us a bit more about Vertical Horizon – how did this set of photographs come about? What are you trying to show with them?
The project Vertical Horizon came up naturally. In 2011, as I was exploring the different districts of the city, I was taking many photos and among them were a few that I shot with a “Vertical Horizon angle”. In early 2012 I gathered four or five of these photos that used this angle, then the idea of making a larger series came up as I was sure I could find more places fitting this angle in HK. So I went through a thorough exploration of the city in order to find the best spots. My leitmotiv was mainly to share with people an unusual point of view on this city and how unique and impressive it could look.

Your images in this series all show a fascination with shapes and patterns formed by buildings – do you consciously go and look for these spaces, or are they usually places that you just come across?
Since my childhood, I have always been very into geometric shapes. As a kid I used to draw pages and pages of geometric shapes to depict sceneries or totally abstract patterns. So in a way, when I am creating these photos, I am searching for the spaces that will offer me the best way to express my thirst for geometric shapes.

Do you think the concept of Vertical Horizon could be replicated in other places too, or is it unique to Hong Kong?
I think that Hong Kong is definitely the most fitting city most for the concept of Vertical Horizon. Indeed, even by always using the same angle, I can still convey many different concepts from chaos to sleek modernity or even abstractness. It’s all thanks to HK’s heterogeneous urban area. I am pretty sure that in some other big cities I could find some interesting shots, but I don’t think I would be able to get such a variety of patterns and subjects.

Sum up Hong Kong in three words…
Visceral, chaotic yet beautiful.

Time Out Singapore: John Clang

Despite living abroad, John Clang attempts to connect to his family through his photography and Skype. Gwen Pew asks the photographer more about ‘Being Together’.

John Clang.

John Clang.

4 Feb 2013: John Clang, whose real name is Ang Choon Leng, first earned his moniker from the badge on his National Service uniform, which read ‘C L Ang’. After a short stint at Lasalle studying fine arts, Ang left school to become an assistant to Cultural Medallion-winning photographer Chua Soo Bin. To give himself a leg up and increase his chances of being noticed, he adopted the European-sounding pseudonym, and it stuck. He’s certainly made a name for himself since, becoming the first photographer to be awarded the prestigious President’s Design Award in 2010. Clang also had his works displayed in museums and galleries all over the world – including New York, Paris, London and Hong Kong – as well as local venues such as 2902 Gallery, The Esplanade and the Singapore Art Museum (which has a selection of his works in their permanent collection).

These days, the youthful-looking 40-year-old is based abroad in New York, though his works continue to look back towards his home and family in Singapore. ‘Being Together’, a new show currently on display at the National Museum of Singapore, collects five of his recent photo series, some of which depict family members with blurred faces, as well as several family portraits showing groups from three different angles at the same moment or bringing together family members in different countries through Skype. Here, he tells us about his works and his sense of ‘home’.

What’s the main inspiration for your photography?
My photographs tend to be inspired by the slices of life, the minute experiences I encounter. To live a life is key to my work. The people featured in my work tend to be my family members, friends and total strangers. They sound like a whole range, but they are the same to me. It’s an intimate encounter when they enter my life in my pictures.

What do the faded faces and figures in some of your series symbolise?
I left my family fourteen years ago to pursue an artistic career away from home. The blurring of the faces in the photographs signifies the difficulty I have picturing their faces accurately in my mind, and the fear that, one day, I might not be able to remember their faces anymore.

Given the name of this show, what is it about ‘Being Together’ that you are most fascinated by?
Togetherness in a portrait session is a momentarily bonding at a specific time. I’m fascinated by the moment where all frictions or differences, if any, were being cast aside during that brief session. It shows the possibility that we can all actually tolerate one another, should we choose to.

Explain the setup you used with Skype to take some of the family portraits – how were they taken?

A webcam was brought to the family in Singapore, while me and my wife Elin were stationed in another country with their other family member. Then we used Skype to contact the family in Singapore, and projected them onto the wall of the family member stationed abroad. Through this coordination, we arranged for them to stand precisely together while I photographed their portrait. The whole process is live, and it’s important to see the interaction.

With more people living abroad, do you feel like people are becoming increasingly out of touch with each other, or have we found ways to bridge the geographical gaps?
Like any developed country, Singaporeans are turning to be very sociable via social networking. Personas in the cyber world tend to exude more warmth than the actual self. Have we bridged the gap in geographical distance? I’m not sure. I sometimes talk to my wife using internet chat even when we’re at home.

Being away from Singapore, do you feel like your own sense of rootedness has been warped, or does travelling give you a more solid sense of what ‘home’ is?

My sense of ‘rootedness’ comes from my Singaporean wife, my accent and my childhood and youth memories. They stay with me in my apartment and give me a sense of ‘home’. Through them, I understand what home means to me – it’s the memories and moments I bring along with me wherever I travel. Any plans to return to Singapore? I’ve been asked many times if I’ll ever return, and the answer is always the same – I can’t.