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Openings: Zhao Renhui

Source: ArtForum Author: Jeffrey Kastner Apr,2012

IN AUTUMN 2009, I got an e-mail from a young artist named Zhao Renhui. He wanted to share some images he had made on a recent trip he’d taken with an organization called the Institute of Critical Zoologists (ICZ). Zhao had joined the group, he wrote, on a journey to the tiny, uninhabited island of Pulau Pejantan in the South China Sea, a few hundred kilometers off the coast of the Indonesian province of West Kalimantan. Pulau Pejantan, Zhao explained, had only recently been surveyed for the first time, and its unique ecosystem—a central semitropical forest ringed with towering white sand dunes—had been found to contain extraordinarily rare geologic features and unique fauna, many examples of which he had photographed, despite the almost constant fog that he said blanketed the landscape as the result of its location in the doldrums along the Sunda Trench.

The images he sent—of a school of “Pacific Lantern Fish” surfacing along a coastline, their illuminated eyes flashing beneath the dark water; a cheetahlike “Iriamondi Cat” reclining in a canyon between talcum-powder hills; an erupting “Black Geyser” shooting a fan of ebony liquid out of a shadowy depression in the pale soil—were entirely convincing and, at the same time, utterly unbelievable, in both the figurative and the literal senses of the word. After some back-and-forth, it became clear that though the island was real, and Zhao had indeed visited it with the ICZ (an easy enough thing for him to do, since it turns out he’s the institute’s only member), the images themselves were in fact meticulously crafted constructions. They did not depict the island in its actual state but were instead designed to function together as a kind of fantastical stand-in for it, one that—in keeping with Zhao’s larger conceptual program—expertly mobilized the strategies of observation and documentation in order to recast the scientific-research mission as an insurrectionist sci-fi travelogue, a mode of producing knowledge about the natural world that owes more to Borges than to Attenborough.

Over the past several years, the two of us have maintained a correspondence of sorts, consisting of e-mails and packages arriving in Brooklyn every few months from various locations around East Asia (the twenty-nine-year-old Zhao currently splits his time between London and his native Singapore). The packages contain scrupulously produced publications made under the auspices of the institute, such as ICZ Phylliidae Studies, 2009, which focuses on “walking leaves,” an ancient family of insects whose bodies precisely resemble bits of foliage, and The Whiteness of a Whale, 2010, the results of research into purported sightings of a rare cetacean near the Japanese city of Omishima. Even after all this time with the work, I still cannot say with conviction precisely where the line between truth and falsehood lies in Zhao’s practice, so skillfully does his art marshal the visual and discursive patterns of the master narratives it infiltrates. His books imitate the large-scale style and syntax of scientific publications but are riddled in their details with strategic absences, opacities, and other clues to their operational instability—“data” presented in ways that mimic but never fully correspond to accepted scientific procedures; pictures that purport to show things that can’t necessarily be seen in them; uncertain epistemic frameworks (members of the “Phylliidae Study Group,” master breeder “Hiroshi Abe” laments in his catalogue note, were skeptical of a particular claim of his because “due to the low quality of the video, [they could hardly] make out the species from the green foliage” that surrounded it). Like the walking leaf’s, the parafictional camouflage of Zhao’s work allows it to blend seamlessly into its informational surroundings; like Ahab’s vexing quarry, it symbolizes a kind of perpetually receding goal, one that embodies an array of anxieties and desires that trouble contemporary considerations of “nature” in our anthropocenic age.

We increasingly speak of a parafictional turn in contemporary art, but just how any such turn will finally differ in practice from previous modernist repurposings of historiographic, allegorical, and archival methodologies remains inconclusive. With its wry grotesqueries and exuberant enthusiasms, Zhao’s work, for its part, sidesteps didacticism—it might be best understood as standing in line with Colbertian “truthiness,” a conceptual formulation that, as Carrie Lambert-Beatty wrote of parafiction in 2009, is “oriented less toward the disappearance of the real than toward the pragmatics of trust.” With Zhao, there are some stable facts, and they seem to be these: An animal rights activist from an early age, he moved to London in 2007 to study at the Camberwell College of Arts, and in 2008 received a grant to photograph the conditions of animals in European zoos and circuses. At the end of a month spent visiting more than a dozen such environments, he realized he “was more interested in watching humans watch animals” than in watching animals himself.

Zhao started the ICZ while at Camberwell in 2008—though the institute’s website (criticalzoolo, a crucial nexus for the many interpenetrating feints of the artist’s program, dates its beginnings to 1996 and the merger of the Japanese “Nagasaki Animal Center” and a Chinese research institute called “Zhong Yao Dong Wu Xue Guan”—and in the four years since, he has stopped making work under his own name, placing all his activities beneath the aegis of the organization whose sprawling multinational “staff” is culled from a retinue of the artist’s friends and features various pseudonymous characters depicted in both found and staged images. Drawing always on Zhao’s constructed photographs, the ICZ has from the beginning oscillated between the kinds of “documentary” projects represented by the Pulau Pejantan images and a range of sly, Swiftian “research” programs whose data- and image-rich mode of conceptual double entendre—on offer in ideas such as the proposed farming of tigers for medicinal purposes to reduce poaching (“Medicinal Tigers,” 2007), “metamaterial” camouflage cloaks that secret observers in the field (“The Blind,” 2008–10), and a process that induces biostasis to extend the life spans of endangered animals (“Acusis,” 2008)—is designed to simultaneously inhabit and dismantle certain familiar structures of environmentalism, animal husbandry, and zoological research.

The most recent correspondence I received from Zhao included a catalogue published by the ICZ late last year documenting the activities of something called the “Glacier Study Group,” which purportedly conducted an Arctic ice survey. In the full set on the ICZ’s website, the images are so carefully pitched between reality and artifice that their subtle incongruities ring even purer. I know that none of them—depicting, for example, a lone polar bear standing on an ice floe, a pair of white foxes sheltering behind a rock—show what is real, or at least considered real in the context of the orthodox nature photograph. Yet they are, in some ineffable yet fundamental way, faithful documents: The enormous bleached stag antlers protruding from the frozen sea do persuasively propose the body beneath, just as the image of a man in wildly unsuitable attire leaping from a chunk of ice into the frigid Arctic waters suggests both the aspirations and the limits of our “natural” condition as vividly as any documentary image possibly could.



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